Margaret Thatcher

A platform for working class unity? The Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front and the 1987 election

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One of the most controversial groups on the British far left was the Revolutionary Communist Party. After its dissolution in the late 1990s, many of its leading members, including its leader Frank Furedi, went on to found the online libertarian/contrarian magazine, Spiked. Since the inception of the RCP in the late 1970s (originally the Revolutionary Communist Tendency until 1981), it has been regarded by many other groups on the left as sectarian and controversialist, with some arguing that the RCP indulged in cult-like behaviour.

The RCP broke away from the Revolutionary Communist Group in the late 1970s, particularly over their approach to South Africa and the role of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party, although wider disagreements emerged. The RCG had originally broken from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, before the IS became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. Both the RCT and the RCG campaigned strongly around the issue of Irish Republicanism and British imperialism in Northern Ireland, as well as around issues such as anti-racism. The RCT/RCP formed several front groups around single issues during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the most prominent being the Irish Freedom Movement and Workers Against Racism.

Being known by other left groups as promoting an ‘ultra left’ agenda, the RCP stood out from the rest of the left at this stage, even amongst the other Trotskyist and Leninist groups that were around during the 1980s. As well as disagreeing with several groups over the Falklands War and the Miners’ Strike, the RCP argued that the Labour no longer represented the British working class and admonished the rest of the British far left for calling for a vote for Labour in general elections. This led in 1987 to the formation of the Red Front, an electoral vehicle to challenge the hegemony of the Labour Party.

The Red Front manifesto

In early 1987, the RCP published a lengthy manifesto, The Red Front: A Platform for Working Class Unity, proposing an left-wing electoral alliance as an alternative to Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, led by the RCP. The RCP, the manifesto stated, was formed ‘in response to the urgent need to build a new party to advance the interests of the working class’ that was ‘not merely… within the framework of parliament and of British capitalism’. The ‘immediate objective’ of the RCP was ‘to build a revolutionary working class party in Britain’. The aim of the RCP and the Red Front was ‘not to win seats in parliament’, but instead ‘to rally a core of activists around a platform that can lead the struggle against the capitalist system before, during and after the election.’ The working class needed to be convinced, in the eyes of the RCP, that the only way to challenge the capitalist system was ‘not through elections and politicians, council grans or government quangos, but through the direct action of the working class itself.’ With a sense of grandeur, the party announced, ‘[w]hichever party wins the election, the future of the working class depends upon the success of this project.’

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The RCP lamented that the British left ‘cannot resist calling for a vote to put Kinnock in power’ and that overall, it was ‘axiomatic [for the left] to vote Labour’. Even though ‘[f]ew Labour supporters really believe[d] that a Labour government would bring significant advantages for the working class’. The RCP criticised the position of the British far left groups who saw Labour as the lesser of two evils between Thatcher and Kinnock, stating ‘[s]upporting Labour on the grounds that it is the lesser evil means abandoning working class politics’. The manifesto questioned whether Labour was really the lesser evil and remarked that it was ‘difficult to imagine that a Kinnock government could be as bad as the Thatcher regime.’

The RCP lambasted the SWP in particular for trying to ‘give pessimism the stamp of revolutionary approval’ for arguing that the left was in retreat after the Miners’ Strike and calling for a vote for Labour in 1987. In Socialist Review in June 1987, Donny Gluckstein argued that ‘People vote Labour because they are working class and identify the party with that class’. Gluckstein then reasoned:

So the Labour Party’s vote must be understood as a partial rejection of capitalist ideas. Despite Kinnock’s right wing stance and the record of previous Labour governments, workers do not vote Labour because they want worse social services, lower wages or higher unemployment. They want improvements in these spheres… They vote Labour because, through its rhetoric and its history of organisational links with the trade unions, it is seen as a party of the working class.

 For this reason, the SWP proposed calling for a vote for Labour, while building its own membership as a revolutionary alternative. The RCP also saw themselves as an alternative to Labour and ‘recognise[d] that at present our influence is limited’, but put forward the Red Front as an electoral vehicle to challenge Labour at the voting booth. They presented the Red Front as an exercise in tactical unity across the British left, stating:

We believe that there are thousands of activists just as concerned as we are about the future of the working class. We do not expect them to agree with the full programme of the RCP. Nor we do expect those with long associations with the Labour Party to change their views overnight. What we propose is a way of giving the working class a voice in the political struggle around the general election.

Arguing that the case for the Red Front was ‘overwhelming’, the RCP suggested that even ‘those who reject the revolutionary communist analysis of Labour should seriously examine our proposal’ and should concede that ‘a successful campaign for workers’ interests will put more pressure on the Labour Party than the continuation of the current inertia’.

While condemning many on the British left for their critical support of the Labour Party electorally, the RCP attempted to portray the Red Front as a viable vehicle to unify the fractured left. The manifesto asserted:

The Red Front will be simply an agreement of individuals and organisations to fight together around a set of basic demands… Anybody who committed to the interests of the working class should support it.

The RCP saw the Red Front as an ‘electoral bloc’ where there was an agreed basic platform, but with each organisation, including the RCP, putting forward their own wider programme. The ‘basic’ demands of the Red Front were:

  • Work or full pay
  • Defend union rights
  • Equal rights for all
  • Stop the war drive

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However the expanded explanations of these demands in the Red Front manifesto reflected the world-view of the RCP and while some of their ultra-left policies may have resonated with the rest of the far left, there were other points that highlighted the significant differences between the RCP and its rivals.

The RCP did not offer any economic policies in the manifesto because they believed ‘there are no economic solutions to the problems facing the majority of people in Britain’. While wanting to end unemployment and poverty’, the RCP stated ‘we are certain that these objectives can be achieved only through a wide-ranging political struggle against the capitalist order’.

The RCP emphasised more strongly the fight against the trade union bureaucracy, which they accused of ‘class collaboration’ and narrow defensism. In the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike and the Wapping Printers Strike, the RCP saw the trade unions, particularly the Trades Union Congress, as unwilling to take radical action and having a ‘bureaucratic strangehold’ on the labour movement that dissipated the energies of striking workers. Like many on the Trotskyist left, especially the SWP, the RCP emphasised the rank-and-file membership of the trade unions, writing:

Unless we turn our unions into organisations whicb are accountable to the rank and file – organisations which can effectively defend their members’ interests – nothing will stop the spread of scab unionism.

Proclaiming that ‘[t]he RCP has played an active role in the trade unions and in strikes ever since the foundation of the party’, the manifesto made the following policy statement as a basic demand of the Red Front:

We stand for the repeal of all laws that restrict the rights of workers to take action in defence of working class interests. We reject all restrictions on striking, picketing and solidarity action. We reject all state intervention in strike ballots, union elections or any other labour movement activity.

One of the defining features of the RCP, which is greatly demonstrated by its eventual transition into Living Marxism and Spiked, was its libertarianism. In the Red Front manifesto, it emphasised its resistance to state interventions of any kind and the rejection of what it saw as ‘reactionary moralism’. While rightly criticising the social conservatism and ‘law and order’ agendas of the Thatcher, the RCP sometimes strayed into dismissing concerns of others. For example, on the issue of women’s rights, the manifesto stated:

Politicians, the press and television now take an inordinate interest in child abuse and in rape. This is partly to indulge a prurient public opinion, but it serves a much wider purpose. It encourages a climate of tension and anxiety which leads people to distrust one another and instead put their faith in the authorities.

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Red Front manifesto was its attitude towards HIV/AIDS. While many gay rights groups were concerned about the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, the RCP stated, ‘The dangers from Aids have in fact been grossly exaggerated’, adding ‘The principal threat to homosexuals in Britain today is not from Aids, but from the safe sex campaign.’ The manifesto expanded upon this by arguing that ‘safe sex will not save lives as long as homosexuals remain oppressed’, dismissing the safe sex message as ‘divisive moralism and phoney public health propaganda of the establishment’. Instead the RCP proclaimed:

the Aids panic is neither a moral nor a public health problem. It is a political challenge to the workers’ movement. It is impossible to deal with Aids in a technical way because of the position of homosexuals as an oppressed section of society.

Lucy Robinson has shown that the RCP’s line on AIDS was met with ‘particular suspicion’ by gay rights groups, which saw the RCP’s approach as the ‘antithesis of AIDS activists’ universalising model’. Thus the gay rights movement ‘became increasingly resistant to the RCP’s interventions’.

The other organisations

Despite the Red Front’s call for unity, the only two organisations to put forward their support for the Red Front were Red Action and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which both, like the RCP, emerged from splits with the SWP. Red Action was predominantly known for its role in Anti-Fascist Action and its support for militant Irish Republicanism. In June 1987, the Red Action newspaper made a front-page statement of their support for the Red Front on the grounds that they ‘always supported the idea of trying to build the greatest possible unity between all far left groups, and will always support all initiatives which aim at this.’ Acknowledging that the Red Front was ‘a very new and embryonic movement’, and ‘obviously limited in what it can hope to achieve’ at the election, Red Action still stated:

we believe that such an initiative, if it is given the sort of support it deserves, has the potential to grow into something which could in the not to [sic] distant future start to achieve a decent impact…

VOTE TO SUPPORT A WORKING CLASS FIGHTBACK VOTE RED FRONT

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The other group to support for the Red Front was the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which had split from the SWP in the early 1980s. Regarding themselves as an ‘external faction’, they championed the programme of the International Socialists in the 1970s and felt that the current SWP was ‘ultra left’ and ‘isolationist’. The RDG welcomed the Red Front’s appeal for unity, decrying a similar call by the SWP the previous year. They qualified their support by saying, ‘[i]f the Red Front is to be the foundation for genuine left unity we believe certain points need open discussion by those “left wing organisations and individuals”, and called for a joint meeting of any interested groups. This, the RDG argued, ‘should answer any criticism that the Red Front is just a front for the RCP.’ While agreeing with the four main points of the Red Front manifesto, the RDG quipped that ‘contrary to the RCP’s view, the demands can’t just be plucked out of thin air with the aim of appealing to as many people as possible’. To form a platform that would attempt to unify the left, the RDG proposed a ‘Workers’ Platform’ that would be open to discussion. 

The RDG published an open letter to the RCP in their journal Republican Worker that they asked to be printed in the RCP journal The Next Step. This letter welcomed the call for unity and as mentioned above, stressed the need for joint meetings to determine a united platform. Following this, it also stated:

We must be sure that our rights are protected in the event of any political dispute. In this respect our differences such as they may be, be publicly recognised by being given reasonable space to explain them in The Next Step. With such as safeguard we for our part will recognise the need to give away to the majority if unity is to be maintained.

This reflected the concern that the RDG had about democracy within the organisations of the far left, developed from their days as members within the SWP during a period of upheaval and disruption. But despite their friction with the SWP in the 1980s, the RDG also proposed to the RCP:

As the SWP is the largest and most influential group on the revolutionary left, we would place particular emphasis on involving them in the discussion on the united front/Red Front.

Steve Freeman of the RDG had a letter published in The Next Step on the issue of unity under the banner of the Red Front. The RDG clarified that they had not joined the Red Front, but had ‘called for a vote for Red Front candidates’. Freeman characterised the Red Front as contradictory, writing:

Insofar as it is an opening up of a genuine unity approach, attempting to address real problems of our movement, we welcome it. Insofar as its only real purpose is to promote the RCP we criticise and reject it.

 The RDG felt that the Red Front could not ‘provide a real answer to the problems faced by our movement’ as it dismissed the United Front approach, a tactic which had first been proposed by the Communist International in the 1920s to build links between revolutionary communists and social democrats. Freeman claimed:

The United Front stems from the needs of the class not from the needs of any political grouping to recruit more members… The United Front tactic provides a method of approaching the working class and its advanced sections. Even a small organisation can adopt, although size will influence how it can be put into practice. This is why we urge Marxists in the RCP, SWP, WRP, etc, to fight for this policy. We hope that The Red Front initiative will be a positive part of that debate.

However the RCP rejected the notion of the United Front. Frank Furedi, writing under the pseudonym of Linda Ryan, replied in The Next Step (after the 1987 election) that the tactic did not ‘tackle the real conditions of today’ and urged that it made ‘no sense to try to impose classical schemas on the situation we face in the aftermath of the 1987 election’. Mass work amongst the trade unions was deemed to be ‘not an achievable task for today’, with Ryan/Furedi stating instead:

Our immediate job is more modest, but crucially important. It is to organise a core movement, made up of the existing anti-capitalist forces.

 The Red Front tactic is designed to deal with this problem… The Red Front initiative offers an opportunity to pull them together around an agreed agenda, to fight as a coherent force on the central issues facing the working class in the late eighties.

 Most of the rest of the far left ignored the Red Front. Of the few that noticed it, Workers’ Power called the Red Front manifesto as ‘an ultra-left and sectarian position on social democracy with an opportunist stance on questions of platform and programme.’ The Spartacist League in their newspaper Workers’ Hammer wrote that the RCP’s ‘supposed “Red Front”’ was ‘sub-reformist piffle’ that was ‘[v]irulently anti-Soviet and unsavoury at best’.

The Greenwich by-election and the Red Front candidates

 The first announcement of the Red Front seems to be in The Next Step in early February 1987. In an article titled ‘We Can’t Win with Kinnock’, the RCP announced:

The Revolutionary Communist Party is campaigning for support for The Red Front – a platform for working class unity – as a way to fill the gap left by Labour. We want The Red Front to be an electoral bloc that can bring together left-wing groups and individuals around basic working class demands…

 The article outlined these basic demands which were replicated in the manifesto and in other RCP literature.

In the same month, the RCP’s Kate Marshall stood as a candidate in the Greenwich by-election ‘as an alternative to Labour’. She received 91 votes. The following week, The Next Step argued that this by-election brought home the need for the Red Front. The RCP suggested there was a groundswell of discontent amongst the British working class towards Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party that the Red Front could try to tap into, writing:

While canvassing local estates, we met many Labour supporters who were unhappy about Kinnock’s project of presenting his party as a harmless and inoffensive body. Others had seen enough of what Labour would do for working class people in the years they had suffered under a Labour council.

 However they argued that ‘once the SDP bandwagon got rolling’, most Labour supporters voted for Deidre Wood, the Labour candidate, ‘for no other reason than a desire to keep out the openly pro-capitalist candidates’. The RCP concluded that despite the low vote, ‘there were some encouraging signs beneath the surface of the RCP campaign’, claiming that the ‘level of anti-Labour feeling among left-wing people was at a new high’. This indicated, the RCP believed, ‘the possibility of building support for The Red Front, as a bloc of left-wingers who want to put fighting for the working class before supporting the Labour Party’.

An editorial in the same issue of The Next Step outlined the way forward for The Red Front in the lead up to the 1987 general election:

We cannot promise you election-winning parties like the one the SDP held last week. But we can promise you that if we don’t start speaking up for our class now, the red-baiters will seriously set back the prospects for real change.

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The Red Front put up 14 candidates for the general election, announced in The Next Step in May 1987 with the declaration, ‘The only candidates speaking out clearly for our class are those standing for The Red Front’. On election day, the most votes attracted by a Red Front candidate was by Dave Hallsworth in Knowsley North with 538 (1.37% of the vote). This was actually a decrease from the 664 votes that Hallsworth received in a by-election in the same ward in November 1986.

The Next Step featured several articles dissecting the Red Front’s performance at the election. Although ‘modest’, Frank Furedi (under the pseudonym Frank Richards) argued that the RCP had ‘made an important intervention in the election campaign’ as the Red Front ‘provided the only organised expression of the independent interests of the working class.’ Furedi/Richards claimed that there was ‘insufficient time… to gain wide support’ before the election and that they ‘underestimated the intense fear of isolation that prevails among people who want a revolutionary change.’ He also complained that the other left groups that supported the Red Front lacked resources and thus ‘the RCP had to carry The Red Front more or less on our own’.

The experience of the Red Front at the election gave the RCP both optimism and pessimism. Looking somewhat positively, Furedi/Richards wrote:

The RCP now has an enormous responsibility. Most of the left, including those who consider themselves revolutionary, have abandoned the political arena to Labour…

The fight for The Red Front is the party’s most important initiative up to now. It provides a framework for bringing together anti-capitalists and maximising their influence. The Red Front is even more important now. Without a clear national focus through which to organise the action of anti-capitalists, the various struggles take on by workers will remain isolated and ineffective.

But at the same time, there was acceptance of the problems facing the Red Front, with Furedi/Richards acknowledging that ‘[a]t present The Red Front has no real existence: it is still a perspective waiting to be implemented.’ Another article stated that despite the calls for unity, ‘The Red Front is not at this stage an attempt to build a mass movement.’ Its purpose after the election, as the RCP saw it, was ‘to provide an organisational framework for those who are already prepared to fight back.’ Unity was to come through action, rather than through a common programme, with the ‘most immediate aim’ of the Red Front being ‘to create the conditions in which those who want to fight back have the means to do so.’

In 1986, the RCP started the journal Confrontation, which was somewhat similar in style to the CPGB’s Marxism Today or possibly the SWP’s International Socialism. In the second issue, Furedi, writing as Linda Ryan, looked over the strategy of the Red Front. Criticising the British left for having ‘made a virtue of not fighting back’ against the Labour Party, Ryan/Furedi proposed that the left had long regarded ‘beyond question that it should support the Labour Party in elections’. This had led some on the left, such as the aforementioned RDG to suggest the tactic of the United Front, building links between the Labour Party and far left groups. Returning to the arguments that the RCP had with the RDG, Ryan/Furedi stated that because ‘revolutionaries are a numerically insignificant minority’ in 1987 and thus there was an ‘absence of a vanguard in the working class today’, the United Front approach was ‘quite inappropriate’.

The Red Front was the way forward according to the RCP as it was ‘an attempt to forge an alternative political focus to Labour’. The British left would ‘have to learn to work independently if it is to influence events’, supposedly through vehicles such as the Red Front, or as Ryan/Furedi claimed, ‘[t]he alternative is another 65 years in the wilderness’. The article concluded:

The future of the British working class depends on a fundamental re-orientation proposed by the Revolutionary Communist Party. At a time when the employers stand ready to launch a new offensive the labour movement will pay a heavy price for lack of solid organisation and clear direction. Only by getting Labour off our backs will we succeed in advancing the historic destiny of the working class.

Aftermath

Despite initial enthusiasm for the Red Front, the electoral bloc did not last. Red Action and the RDG seemed to quickly forget about their support for the Red Front. In his satirical look at the British far left, John Sullivan wrote about the RDG’s dalliance with the RCP:

It caused some surprise when they supported the RCP’s Red Front in the 1987 General Election, but the minimalism of the programme appealed to their nostalgia for the SWP of the 1970s. They seemed, when we spoke to them, a little shamefaced about that episode, and admitted that the RCP are a ‘rum lot’, hardly a convincing Marxist analysis.

The RCP also dropped the Red Front as the late 1980s wore on. When the 1992 election campaign began, the RCP fielded eight candidates (plus a separate Workers Against Racism candidate in Holborn and St Pancras). Kenan Malik was the only candidate to stand in both the 1987 and 1992 elections for the Red Front and the RCP.

The RCP wound up in 1996. Many of those who were part of the RCP continued to contribute to LM, formerly Living Marxism journal. After being wound up in 2000, Furedi and a number of former RCP members helped create Spiked Online. The Red Front was ignored by most of those on the British left and seems to have left little in the historical memory of the post-RCP incarnations. For an organisation that prided itself on its difference from the rest of the left, the Red Front seemed to be an odd attempt at unity, and was possibly one of the many catalysts that pushed the RCP towards further individualism and definitively breaking with the leftist milieu that existed in the 1980s-90s.

Why is the Red Front worth revisiting historically? The RCP, for better or worse, was one of the most infamous left-wing groups in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s and their influence has reverberated far beyond their relative size in the two decades since dissolving. The Red Front was an episode in the RCP’s history when the group attempted to break out of its contrarian persona and whether sincere or not, tried to build links with other leftist groups and activists. Initiatives to build unity across the British far left have occurred throughout the twentieth century (and even into the twenty-first), usually in times of ascendency, and have almost always failed. The Red Front is an interesting example of this at a time when the British left was in retreat in the face of Thatcherism. More needs to be researched and written about the groups on the fringes of the far left and this case study is a beginning to undertake this research.

An activist account of the RCP written by Michael Fitzpatrick is included in our forthcoming edited volume, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, out next month through Manchester University Press.

Thanks to James H, Kieron S. and David M. for their assistance in sourcing primary sources for this post.

 

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Briefing Margaret Thatcher on punk and pop music (1987)

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(picture from Buzzfeed)

In early 1987, as Red Wedge was underway calling for young people to support the Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher conducted an interview with Smash Hits magazine. The interview was published in March 1987 and featured such exchanges about The Smiths and The Housemartins (who had both been vocal in their criticisms of Thatcher):

Tony Hibbert Smash HitsI do not know if you are aware of groups like the Smiths and the Housemartins …

PM: Yes, I know the Housemartins, yes.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: …who are very left-wing groups, not so much in their songs which are about men and women like all pop songs, but in their interviews they are very left-wing and say “We must get Mrs Thatcher out of No 10.”

PM: Do they? I remember when I went down to Limehouse Studios once, there was a pop group who I was told I would not get on with at all well. Well, I was absolutely fascinated because they were rehearsing for television; it is a highly professional business. The cameras have to come in on certain shots, there is a fantastic amount of energy and of course their voices, and I have watched Elton John too who was highly – I am so sad that he is having this difficulty with his throat – highly professional. I think it has become much, much more professional in the technique you use now. You just had echo chambers in our time but now it is much, much more professional. I do not mind. Most young people rebel and then [end p262] gradually they become more realistic and it is very much a part of life rebelling.

When they want to get Mrs Thatcher out of No 10, I have usually not met most of them and it really is lovely to have the chance to talk to them.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: It is nice to be mentioned.

PM: Yes, it is nice they know your name isn’t it?

The rest of the interview is fascinating about Thatcher’s attempts to relate to the young people of the day. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation has just released some of her private papers from 1987, including the briefing notes prepared for this interview. The briefing notes have several gems in them, such as stating that the average Smash Hits reader ‘feels closer to Socialist policies than to your Government’s policies’ and that ‘You may not enjoy the interview’.

However the best part of the document is the brief note that Thatcher got on the history of punk. Here it is:

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In the interview she refers to punks in the following way (obviously having taken in something from her briefing notes):

PM: …So good luck to your pop groups. They do very well for us for export – they do a fantastic job and if some of them want to have yellow hair, pink hair, long hair, short hair, blue jeans, yellow jeans, or these days, my goodness me, there are some smart ones. Marvellous. When I go and look at some of the clothes for young people, gosh, they are pricey but really I think that the sort of informal period has gone, you know, people much more want to live by rules.

Tony Hibbert Smash Hits: Well, we have got rid of the hippies and the punks.

PM: I know we have got the punks. The punks spend a lot of time and money on their appearance.

Tony Hibbert Smash HitsOh yes, what I am saying is that we have got the hippies and the punks more or less out of the way and they are looking much smarter these days.

PM: Yes, that is right because it is better, because they like it better that way. One young person said to me the other day. “Oh” she said, aged eighteen, “there are not any rules these days, I wish we had more rules” and you know, some of the rules are coming back. Life is much better when you have rules to live by. I mean it is really like playing football isn’t it? If you did not have any rules by which to play you would not be able to play the game; you have got [end p274] to have rules to live by. Everyone knows where they are. Of course you will have the whistle blown sometimes because not everyone lives by them but life is better when you have some rules to live by and you know what the accepted rules are and that is coming back and that is good. The 1970s I think was not a very good time. Everyone tried to flout the rules and now they are saying “Look, you cannot live unless you have some rules to live by”. Freedom requires some set of rules as well to live by, so all right we have freed it up and you have got to have rules to live by to respect other people’s freedom so if we are remembered that way I think we will have done a reasonable job for young people the world over.

The document can be found here.

Race, class and black rebellion in Britain, 1976-1981

To commemorate the passing of radical black activist Darcus Howe and the forthcoming anniversaries of the riots of 1980-81, I am posting an excerpt from an older article on how the British left and black activists interpreted the rebellious actions by black youth in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Howe, alongside Stuart Hall and A. Sivanandan, helped the British left develop a new language for understanding the interaction between race and class, stressing the importance of unity between black and white workers, but not at the expense of the demands of the black struggle being subsumed by the objectives of the primarily white labour movement. You can find the rest of the article here.

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Photo by Phil Maxwell

Black radicalism in the 1970s

In the mid-1960s, British black politics, and wider anti-racist politics, was beginning to shift from a focus on anti-colonialism to domestic anti-racism and saw the emergence of broad-based and moderate black organisations, such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the United Coloured Peoples Association and the Institute of Race Relations. However the ineffectiveness of the official legislation, the Race Relations Act, to combat racism in British society and the increasing bipartisan consensus within the British Government that black immigrants were the ‘problem’ produced a more militant black political awareness, inspired by black power from the United States, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial politics in the former British Empire. Black power in Britain was partially a reaction to the dissatisfaction felt amongst black activists with the existing anti-racist organisations; a belief that the labour movement had subordinated issues of ‘race’ for the class struggle and that the official race relations bodies were compromised by a tendency towards conciliation, rather than effective anti-racist actions. Black power – the idea that ‘black people needed to redefine themselves by asserting their own history and culture to project an image which they would develop without white people’[1] – inspired many disaffected activists, buoyed by the actions of African-Americans in the US and the widespread cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Black activists in Britain established their own political organisations, with the proliferation of radical publications and bookstores providing the structural centres for many black British militants. They were able to produce a number of radical publications, which advocated a black power position and often combined with a Marxist framework. These publications were often distributed out of black-owned bookstores, which became hubs for black radical and important landmarks for the black communities, functioning as what Colin A. Beckles has described as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’.[2]

Beginning in 1958, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) had been established as a moderate and scholarly organisation to address ‘race relations’ and black politics in Britain and by the early 1970s, had two significant journals dealing with these issues – Race Today, which was a monthly magazine[3] and Race, which was a academically-minded journal published quarterly. However by this time, there was an increasingly vocal section within the IRR that the Institute needed to be much more pro-active in its discussion of ‘race relations’, rather than merely an ‘impartial’ scholarly body. As A. Sivanandan, one of the major critics of the ‘old’ IRR and founding editor of Race & Class, wrote, ‘We did not want to add to the tomes which spoke in obfuscatory and erudite language to a chosen few, we no longer believed in the goodwill of governments to listen to our reasoned arguments’.[4]

In 1973, Race Today became a separate entity from the IRR under the editorship of Darcus Howe, a black radical journalist, forming the Race Today Collective. Influenced by the work of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, Howe rejected the view that it was necessary to ‘build a vanguard party to lead Blacks to some emancipation’[5] and the journal became a beacon for black political journalism, intertwining libertarian Marxism with a radical anti-racism. Max Farrar has described this position as ‘black self-organisation for socialism which is autonomous of, but not cut off from, the white majority’.[6] (My emphasis) Following the departure of Race Today from the IRR, the ‘old’ IRR shrank to three staff, who revitalised the Institute as a ‘servicing station for oppressed peoples on their way to liberation’.[7] The quarterly journal Race was changed to Race & Class in mid-1974 and conceptualised as a ‘campaigning journal, “a collective organizer”, devoted not just to thinking… but to thinking in order to do’, linking ‘the situation of black workers in Britain and the liberation struggles in the underdeveloped world’.[8] These journals promoted the idea that the black communities in Britain were not simply part of the British working class, but an autonomous political entity, which had different agendas, strategies, histories and points of entry to the traditional labour movement. Although an integral part of post-colonial British society, the black communities experienced ‘discrimination and exclusion’ in many aspects of life, which led to the development of ‘networks of black people organising, primarily without the help of white people, against the racism of employers, unions, police, local authorities, political parties and others’.[9] Their inspiration came partly from radical Marxism and class-based politics, but was just as informed by anti-colonial politics from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, which intertwined to present a black British identity with a colonial legacy, rather than merely colonial subjects in the ‘Mother Country’. This article does not assert that Race Today and Race & Class saw ethnicity and class as completely separable entities (indeed the title Race & Class denotes an acknowledgement of the importance of class), but their main focus was on building autonomous black working class politics, with the debut editorial of Race & Class stating that the concern of the journal was ‘the oppression of black people in Britain’, primarily ‘the place of black workers’.[10] And importantly, in their interpretations of the episodes discussed in this article, they emphasised that these were acts of rebellion by black youth, reflecting the concerns of Britain’s black communities.

Darcus Howe

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

The militancy of black youth

The clashes between the police and black youth correlate with the increasingly confrontational nature of the police in the mid-to-late 1970s and throughout the Thatcherite era. At the heart of this confrontation was the ‘criminalisation’ of black youth.[11] Both Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth faced many of the hardships that had been experienced by their migrant parents, but they also had grown up in Britain, which altered their experiences, particularly in terms of cultural identity and their expectations. The children of post-war black migrants had experienced similar developments in their young lives as their white contemporaries and in many ways, shared closer ties with white British society than to the culture of their parents’ homeland, but were still divorced from many of the opportunities offered by a white identity. Chris Mullard wrote of this as the ‘black Britons’ dilemma’:

He will be British in every way. He will possess understandable values and attitudes; he will wear the same dress, speak the same language, with the same accent; he will be as educated as any other Englishman; and he will behave in an easy relatable way. The only thing he will not be is white.[12]

In a 1974 discussion of youth culture in the Communist Party journal Marxism Today, Imtiaz Chounara claimed that ‘most young coloured people are caught in between two cultures – that of Britain and that of their parents’.[13] Chounara appealed for the CPGB to incorporate black youth (not just black workers in the industrial sector) into the Party, to counter the appeal of ‘black power’, which the CPGB believed to share an affinity with ‘deviant’ versions of Marxism, such as Maoism and Trotskyism.[14] Chounara suggested:

We must therefore fight for black youth to mix culturally with white youth but at the same time to retain their own cultural identity. This is an important part of the fight for black consciousness – to get respect for black people and their culture, not only amongst young white people but also amongst black people themselves. This cannot be done in a “black power” manner, putting black above white, but in a true Marxist manner, fighting for the rightful place of black workers alongside their white brothers as equals.[15]

However the CPGB had to compete with other groups on the far left, such as the International Socialists (after 1977, the Socialist Workers Party), and radical black activists, who both saw black youth as a far more positive force for revolutionary political action.

For them, black youth were deemed to have the same divorced position from the organised labour movement, but were less closely associated with the traditional organisations of the black communities and more likely to be involved in militant actions. This willingness to confront the perpetrators of racial violence and the state led many to idolise their spontaneity and militancy. Ian Macdonald declared in Race Today that black youth were ‘the vanguard of a world-wide proletarian movement’.[16] Cathie Lloyd points to the fetishisation of the rebellion of black youth seen through The Clash’s punk song ‘White Riot’, which ‘expressed admiration for combative black youth at [the Notting Hill] Carnival ‘76’.[17] ‘While black workers were still seen as victims’, Lloyd wrote, ‘there was also admiration and a feeling that they [especially black youth] were at the forefront of a challenge to the established social order’.[18]

For the IS/SWP, the revolutionary potential of black youth was realised as their acts of rebellion, such as the Notting Hill Carnival riot in August 1976, coincided with the Party’s campaign strategies. In a 1976 internal bulletin, the Party declared that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’,[19] attempting to incorporate those affected by racism and unemployment, which were both experienced by black youth. Acts like the riot at the Notting Hill Carnival were seen by the IS/SWP as the beginning of a series of events that ‘highlighted the question of the political role of black youth’, where the seemingly spontaneous rebellion presented ‘new opportunities’ for socialists.[20] Tony Bogues, in the journal International Socialism, defended the actions of those at the Carnival as not mere lawlessness or the deeds of the ‘lumpenproletariat’, declaring that these youth were ‘part of the strata in the working class that is exploited and oppressed’.[21]

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Notting Hill Carnival 1976

The 1981 Riots as Social Protest

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership saw extensive rioting by black youth, first in Bristol in 1980, then in Brixton and across Britain in 1981. For commentators, academics and activists on the left and within the black communities, these riots have been viewed as either part of a wider malaise by the lower classes against the neo-liberal policies of Thatcherism, or the unstructured reaction by black youth to years of racial harassment and discrimination that continued on from the black struggles of the 1970s.

For the left, the 1981 riots were indicative of a widespread antipathy towards the socio-economic policies of the Conservative Government, which saw a reaction by the ‘most oppressed group in the inner city areas’ – black youth – who ‘drew into the struggle the slightly less oppressed’ – white youth.[22] As black youth were amongst the most affected by these economic conditions, coupled with the more immediate burdens of police harassment and the impact of institutional racism, they were the most likely to react, albeit in a manner that was outside the organisation of the left.

The SWP were adamant that the 1981 riots were ‘class riots’ and not ‘race riots’.[23] Colin Sparks stated the riots were the work of ‘a mainly working class community against the symbols of oppression and deprivation’.[24] The riots were the ‘common result of unemployment and crisis’, exacerbated by the experience of racism and the unequal distribution of economic hardship upon black youth.[25] What demonstrated the class aspect of the riots was, Chris Harman wrote, the fact that ‘in virtually all the British riots there has been significant white involvement alongside blacks, and the involvement has not just been of white leftists, but of white working class youth’.[26] For Harman, the ‘immediate background of the riots lies… in a huge increase in unemployment’,[27] with the result being a common experience of repression and economic hardship that contributed to the lower class rebellion. Harman portrayed the riots as a modern incarnation of previous rebellions by the lower classes in Britain. While there was a strong narrative of resistance flowing from the black industrial struggles of the 1970s and the disturbances at Notting Hill and Bristol, Harman linked the riots to previous unemployment struggles in 1886-87 and in 1931-32.[28] For the left, the riots were seen as a starting point for resistance to Thatcherism. The SWP declared that the riots were the symptoms of a ‘bitterness brewing… from the experience of Tory government and economic crisis’, which would ‘sooner or later… explode in the factories as well as on the streets’.[29] It was up to socialists to ‘seize the opportunities to build unity in struggle’[30] that would present themselves as Thatcherism emboldened its attacks upon the ‘subversive’ elements of society.

While not denying the common economic causes of the riots or the involvement of white youth, black activists and journalists emphasised the role of black youth and the racial discrimination and harassment experienced by the black communities that were integral factors in the outbreak of the rioting. For the journal Race & Class, the reasons for the riots were clear, quoting a black youth interviewed for the Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is not against the white community, it’s against the police’.[31] The journal emphasised the repressive nature of the police and the continual harassment faced by black people in everyday life. The repeated harassment by the police formed a long narrative that heightened with the events of the late 1970s, before exploding with the riots of the early 1980s. The journal tried to emphasise the continuity between the events, stating, ‘In many ways what happened during and after the 1976 Carnival was a premonition of the later “riots”’.[32]

The journal also drew a historical continuity between the hundreds of racial attacks that had occurred since the mid-1970s and the rioting; a process from which black people were ‘attacked,… criminalised… and rendered second-class citizens’ to the violent response against the racists and the police, who had failed to adequately protect the black communities.[33] Quoting the Hackney Legal Defence Committee, the journal portrayed the riots as the long awaited reaction to this continual racism:

Black youth took to the streets to defend our communities against police and racial violence. From Brixton to Toxteth, Moss Side to Southall black youth said: “No more: enough is enough!”[34]

Both Race & Class and Race Today portrayed the riots as the result of a lack of a political voice for Britain’s black communities in conventional party politics. As A. Sivanandan was quoted, ‘The black community is a community under attack and, increasingly, a community without redress’.[35] Looking at the political situation for black Britons throughout the early 1970 and the early 1980s, both journals saw the long process of the black communities attempting to work within the system, but still facing exclusion – from the mainstream political parties, trade unions, local government and the left, amongst others – which could burst into spontaneous acts of rebellion. The riots were a forceful recognition of the limited space in which black people in Britain could enter the political sphere, as well as an unplanned reaction to years of racial discrimination, police harassment, violence and economic hardship. The left and black activists recognised that these riots had a political dimension, but there was disagreement on whether this dimension was characterised by notions of ‘class’ or ‘race’.

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The Brixton riots, 1981

[1] Kalbir Shukra, ‘From Black Power to Black Perspectives: The Reconstruction of a Black Political Identity’, Youth and Policy (Summer 1995) p. 6

[2] Colin A. Beckles, ‘“We Shall Not Be Terrorised Out of Existence”: The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops’, Journal of Black Studies, 29/1 (September 1998) p. 51

[3] Race Today was first published by the IRR in 1969 until the Race Today Collective broke away in 1973. From this time until the mid-1980s, the magazine was under the editorship of Darcus Howe. Leila Hassan took over editorial duties in 1985, but the magazine and the Collective folded in 1988. The George Padmore Institute in London and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford hold archival material of the magazine and the Race Today Collective.

[4] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance: The IRR Story’, Race & Class, 50/2 (2008) p. 28

[5] Darcus Howe, interviewed by Ken Lawrence, in Paul Buhle (ed.), C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (London, 1986) p. 147

[6] Max Farrar, ‘“You Don’t Have to Have Read James to be a Jamesian”: Preliminary Notes on the relationship Between the Work of CLR James and Some of the Radical Black, Anti-Racist and Left Movements in the UK, 1970s to 1990s’, Paper delivered at the CLR James Centennial Conference, St Augustine, 20-23 September, 2001, p. 9, http://www.maxfarrar.org.uk/docs/CLRJamesPaperUnivWI2001.pdf, accessed 14 July, 2009

[7] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance’, p. 28

[8] Editorial Working Committee, ‘Editorial’, Race & Class, 16/3 (1975) p. 232; p. 231

[9] Kalbir Shukra, ‘The Death of a Black Political Movement’, Community Development Journal, 32/3 (July 1997) p. 233

[10] EWC, ‘Editorial’, p. 231

[11] See: Paul Gilroy, ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, Socialist Register (1982) pp. 47-56; Cecil Gutzmore, ‘Capital, “Black Youth” and Crime’, Race & Class, 25/2 (1983) pp. 13-30

[12] Chris Mullard, Black Britain (London, 1973) p. 145

[13] Imtiaz Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, Marxism Today (October 1974) p. 318

[14] International Affairs Committee, ‘Racialism and “Black Power”’, CP/LON/RACE/02/01, LHASC

[15] I. Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, pp. 318-319

[16] Ian Macdonald, ‘The Capitalist Way to Curb Discrimination’, Race Today (August 1973) p. 241

[17] Cathie Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Danièle Joly, Scapegoats and Social Actors: The Exclusion and Integration of Minorities in Western and Eastern Europe (Houndmills, 1998) p. 159

[18] C. Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, p. 159

[19] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin (1976) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[20] Tony Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, International Socialism, 1/102 (October 1977) p. 12

[21] T. Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, p. 13

[22] SWP Central Committee, ‘The Riots and After’, SWP Internal Bulletin, 4 (1981) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, MRC

[23] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’; Italics are in the original text.

[24] Colin Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, Socialist Review (May 1981) p. 7; Italics are in the original text.

[25] C. Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, p. 9

[26] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14 (Autumn 1981) p. 14; Italics are in the original text.

[27] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 15

[28] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, pp. 15-16

[29] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’

[30] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 40

[31] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, Race & Class, 23/2-3 (Winter 1981-Autumn 1982) p. 225

[32] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 239

[33] ‘The “Riots”’, p. 232

[34] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 231

[35] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 236

Policing football crowds and the aftermath of Hillsborough: What the new Thatcher papers reveal, pt 2

In my previous post looking at the policing of acid house parties in the late Thatcher period, I noted that the Home Office complained:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[1]

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In the same tranche of documents released by the National Archives at the end of last year was a Prime Minister’s Office file dedicated to the policing of football hooligans and the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989. The file is primarily concerned with the Football Spectators Bill that was first debated in Hansard in January 1989. This Bill was wide-ranging and had been in development for three years, responding to the recommendations of the Popplewell Inquiry, which investigated the Bradford City fire and the riot at Birmingham’s St Andrews ground in May 1985. As well as proposing new criminal offences related to hooliganism, the extension of exclusion orders for convicted ‘hooligan’s from football grounds under the Public Order Act 1986 and electronic tagging for particular offenders, the Bill included a membership scheme, which meant that only registered members could attend matches and tickets for away fans to be highly restricted.

While this Bill was still in development, the Hillsborough disaster occurred and the Bill was temporarily shelved, although as the Hillsborough Independent Panel has shown, the Prime Minister and some of her colleagues wanted to press ahead with pushing the Bill through parliament, despite the need for an investigation into the disaster.[2]

Justice Taylor was assigned to investigate what happened that day, but only a month after the disaster, sections of the Thatcher government were commenting that ‘there was considerable disagreement over the cause of the disaster’.[3] For the government, the reason for the disaster was hooliganism and unruly crowd behaviour. The riots at St Andrews and Luton Town and the Heysel disaster in 1985, as well as clashes between Scottish and English fans in May 1989, had convinced the government that the number one problem at football grounds concerning public order was hooliganism. The Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley complained:

On May 13, less than a month after Hillsborough, there was a serious pitch invasion at Crystal Palace which resulted in 26 arrests. 16 people were injured, two of them with stab wounds. Serious incidents took place all over the country that weekend with more than 300 people being arrested, inside and outside grounds… The existing powers under the Public Order Act have clearly not stamped out the problem.[4]

Speaking at the Football Writers’ Association Dinner in May 1989, the Sports Minister Colin Moynihan spoke dismissively of ‘supporters having to be herded into grounds and protected every match day for their own safety by 5,000 or more police.’[5] The Minister lamented that the police could only ‘contain the problem’ and ‘could be far better deployed in the local communities and towns upholding law and order.’[6]

Another document reiterated this point, stating:

In spite of the efforts of the Government and the football authorities, over 5,000 police officers are still needed every Saturday to contain the problem, to protect the true supporters and those living near football grounds.[7]

The file shows that the government felt that it had to take action, and that the football authorities could not be relied upon to ensure public order at football grounds. At his after dinner speech to the Football Writers’ Association, Moynihan announced:

The Government is not going to allow hooligans to run the show if the football authorities cannot do it themselves.[8]

Although they believed that the final report of the Taylor Inquiry was ‘flawed’,[9] Home Secretary David Waddington wrote to Margaret Thatcher in January 1990 that they should take advantage of the report’s condemnation of the Football League. Waddington noted that the report:

places the responsibility for complacency about safety, for decline in the conditions of grounds, and for poor facilities for spectators firmly at the door of the football industry. It suggests in effect that if you treat people like animals, they will behave that way.[10]

Even though one could say that the Thatcher government held similar perceptions about football crowds in the 1980s, the government tried to portray itself as ‘cleaning up’ English football and taking responsibility after the ineffective management of the football authorities. Moynihan wrote to the editor of The Times, in response to an editorial in the newspaper, outlining the actions of the government to combat hooliganism, especially as the press highlighted fears about English fans at the World Cup being held in Italy during the summer. Defending the government’s record, Moynihan wrote:

This is a record of action not apathy but the Government cannot cure all of football’s problems for it. The essential message of Lord Justice Taylor’s Report is that football must at last face up to its own responsibilities.[11]

The final report of the Taylor Report warned against the implementation of the membership scheme set out in the Football Supporters Bill (and pushed for by the Association of Chief Police Officers), concluding:

I therefore have grave doubts whether the scheme will achieve its object of eliminating hooligans from inside the ground. I have even stronger doubts as to whether it will achieve its further object of ending football hooliganism outside grounds. Indeed, I do not think it will. I feat that, in the short term at least, it may actually increase trouble outside grounds.[12]

With the release of this report, the government decided to drop the push for implementation of the membership scheme, but the Football Supporters Bill was finally passed in November 1989. The Act, in practice, focused much more criminal sanctions against suspected, as well as convicted, ‘hooligans’, and ensuring that football grounds were considered ‘safe’ for top flight matches. For the Thatcher government in the wake of Hillsborough, the focus was on crowd control and dealing with unruly elements of football crowds. The actions of the police, at this point in time, were never questioned by the government.

Hillsborough

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Hillsborough Independent Panel, Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (London: HMSO 2012) pp. 201-203.

[3] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Roger Bright, 9 May, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[4] Letter from Nicholas Ridley, 22 June, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[5] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, 18 May, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Football Spectators Bill: Bull Points’, n.d., PREM 19/3027, NA.

[8] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, p. 8.

[9] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 23 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[10] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Margaret Thatcher, 22 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[11] Letter from Colin Moynihan to Charles Wilson, 1 March, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[12] Lord Justice Taylor, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster – 15 April, 1989 (London: HMSO, 1990) pp. 168-169.

Policing Acid House Parties in 1989: What the new Thatcher Government papers reveal

The latest round of papers from the Prime Minister’s Office have been released, relating to the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90. While files on several topics have been opened, this post will look at the file dedicated the policing of ‘acid house parties’ (also known as raves) in 1989.

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As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the phenomenon of acid house swept across the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s and while a number of clubs, such as the Hacienda in Manchester and Shoom in London, attracted large crowds for their club nights, raves exploded into open areas that were typical venues – warehouses, fields and other places left vacant by Thatcherism. For a number of reasons, including the noise generated by these parties and the use of drugs, these raves started to draw the ire of the police and of the authorities. One briefing note stated that the ‘main problem with acid house parties is the nuisance caused by the noise’ and curiously, stressed ‘[d]rugs are not the main issue’.[1] In a letter to the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the new Home Secretary David Waddington wrote that there was also a concern that ‘criminal elements [were] becoming involved’.[2] This concern, ‘coupled with the need to reassure the public that the existing law can be made effective’, Waddington argued, required a new approach.[3] He also noted that 223 parties had been held in London and the South East in 1989, with 96 stopped by the police and another 95 prevented from going ahead.[4]

And so, after a localised and haphazard response by local councils and the police, in late 1989, the Thatcher government proposed a co-ordinated and nationwide effort to clamp down on these ‘illegal’ parties. The aforementioned briefing note outlined that there were four ways to combat these parties:

  1. Under the licensing law that governs public entertainment;
  2. Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986;
  3. Under the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances;
  4. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.[5]

The note stated that all indoor events were subject to licensing laws (particularly the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982), irrespective of venue, and that in some cases, outdoor events were also subject to licensing laws, depending on the local authorities. However the largest problem for regulating raves through this mechanism, operated by the local councils, was that ‘most organisers of acid house parties are flouting the law by not applying for a licence’.[6] A report produced by the Association of District Councils explained the authorities had tried to prosecute party organisers under the 1982 Act in the past, but there were many ‘practical difficulties’ with the legislation.[7] This report suggested that a ‘national code of standard conditions’ be drawn up, similar to the code of practice for music events that had previously been established by the Greater London Council.[8] Interestingly the same document also mentioned that it might be pertinent to take into account the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough Disaster.[9]

All involved in this discussion felt that one of the key reasons that the organisers did not seek to obtain licenses for their events was that the penalty was far too low – a £2000 fine and/or up to 3 months in prison. In his letter to Howe, Waddington wrote that the penalties were ‘so relatively light that the organisers of these very profitable acid house parties can afford to ignore the law’.[10] Waddington proposed fines be raised to £20,000 and a possibility of up to 6 months imprisonment, commenting that the Association of Chief Police Officers supported these stricter penalties.[11]

One of the problems facing the authorities was that because these raves could be held in any kind of space, trying to police them was difficult. As mentioned above, indoor events were subject to licensing laws, but outdoor events weren’t always covered. For the police, indoor gatherings were not specifically within their remit, but outside assemblies were, under the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Public Order Act to include indoor assemblies was considered ‘contentious’[12] and at this stage, looked like legislative overkill (although similar legislation was eventually passed in 1994 to combat outdoor raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act).

In a letter from Home Office official Peter Storr to Margaret Thatcher’s Personal Secretary Andrew Turnbull, he noted that the police were ‘generally relying on their common law powers to prevent a breach of peace’ and that in the past, the police had ‘been able to persuade organisers to pack up voluntarily’.[13] Furthermore, they had ‘on occasion seized sound equipment on the grounds of preventing a breach of the peace’.[14] The aforementioned briefing note acknowledged:

Strictly speaking the police have no power to intervene to stop a party purely on grounds of noise. But if they receive complaints about the noise, they can intervene using common law powers.[15]

However it was argued that the police were often reluctant to intervene in this way, due to the following two reasons:

  1. mainly to the sheer numbers involved in some of the parties – the risk would be too great;
  2. slight nervousness about relying on common law powers alone – this leaves them open to challenge.[16]

It was believed that what was required were greater police powers ‘to act in flagrant cases’ immediately and at the time of night when these parties were occurring. Turnbull wrote to Carolyn Sinclair in the Home Office saying, ‘It will not be sufficient to give local authorities extra powers if they are not around at 3am to enforce [licensing laws]’.[17] The Association of District Councils also called for the police to be given greater powers ‘to seize and remove and apparatus or equipment’ being used by party organisers.[18]

While the primary problem with acid house parties was identified as the public nuisance caused by the excessive noise generated by these parties, the legislation dealing with noise pollution, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was deemed ‘inadequate to deal with these parties’.[19] It was noted that noise nuisance was a civil offence and the legislation was aimed at factories and other industrial sites, rather than outdoor events. Thus ‘remedy through the courts [was] slow’.[20] The Department of Environment pushed to make noise nuisance a criminal offence,[21] but Turnbull advised the Home Office that Thatcher was ‘doubtful whether greater use of the Control of Pollution Act would be effective as the need was for action at short notice outside working hours.’[22]

Alongside greater penalties under the licensing laws and more explicit powers to allow the police to break ‘illegal’ raves, one of the key proposals made by the Home Office and other agencies was to establish powers to seize profits from party organisers. Powers to seize the proceeds of crime already existed under schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (with a minimum of £10,000 to be confiscated after conviction), and Waddington suggested to Howe that this legislation could be easily amended to incorporate the organisation of these parties into the legislation.[23] On this point, the Home Office’s briefing note stated:

What is needed is a way of hitting at the profit made by the organisers. This should discourage the craze.[24]

It was hoped that these increased penalties and powers of confiscation, as well as more pre-emptive action between the police and local councils, would prevent acid house parties from occurring. The Home Office noted:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[25]

Incidentally, this was the argument made by Tony Wilson in the final days of the Hacienda – that the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, but unwilling to do the same at the famous nightclub to ensure people’s safety.

The following year the Thatcher government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which increased the penalties for organising an ‘illegal’ party to £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison. As the debate in Hansard shows, these measures were supported by both major parties in the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was also amended to allow the seizure of profits made by party organisers.

However this did not end the phenomenon of the illegal rave and the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal specifically with raves, which included the seizure of equipment used to put on events deemed illegal. This Act was opposed by many and led to a grassroots resistance by partygoers and activists. But this was a far way off in 1989. We will have to wait a few more years for the internal government records relating to this.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 1, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Letter from David Waddington to Geoffrey Howe, 2 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 1.

[6] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[7] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, 9 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[13] Letter from Peter Storr to Andrew Turnbull, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note from Andrew Turnbull to Carolyn Sinclair, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[18] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Peter Storr, 16 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[23] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[24] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[25] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

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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Theresa May and UKIP: A repeat of Thatcher and the NF in ’79?

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While everyone is falling over themselves to make analogies between the Labour Party of the 1980s and that of today under Corbyn (or stressing that it’s not a repeat of that decade), we are also in danger of seeing Theresa May’s time (however long) as Prime Minister through the prism of Margaret Thatcher.

In the post-Brexit world, nothing can be taken for granted anymore when it comes to British politics, so any predictions are fraught with error and future embarrassment. With that, despite the prediction by Norman Tebbit that ‘May will drive Tory members into the arms of UKIP’, I am thinking that Theresa May becoming Prime Minister will split the post-Farage UKIP. While Brexit has not been ensured, UKIP’s most prominent policy has been, more or less, achieved, and in the past, single issue groups have struggled to change their message/strategy once their primary objective has been fulfilled or become irrelevant. Coupled with Farage leaving the leadership spot, UKIP look rudderless and will now try to siphon off the anti-immigration vote from both Labour and the Tories as they will probably re-fashion themselves as the ‘sensible’ anti-immigration party – to the right of the Tories but not associated with fascism of Britain First or the British National Party.

This might continue to be a problem for Labour, but May’s record as Home Secretary and her continued ‘tough’ talk on immigration may attract the ‘soft’ UKIP vote back to the Tories. While Cameron was seen as ‘weak’ on controlling immigration, the Home Office under May made the rules incredibly more difficult for non-EEA migrants and their families (and her comments on the future of EU migrants in the UK have not calmed the fears of many). Some UKIP supporters will think that May has not done enough, but many might be swayed by her track record and ‘effort’ in trying to restrict immigration from the EU and the rest of the world.

This is where the Thatcher comparison comes in. Thatcher’s public pronouncements on immigration in the late 1970s helped make her look ‘tough’ on the issue, particularly her comment in 1978 that people were feeling ‘rather swamped’ by Commonwealth migration. Furthermore, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1979 election announced that the Tories would introduce ‘firm immigration control’ that would ‘end persistent fears about levels of immigration’. After this, the Tories were able to attract a significant number of voters who might’ve voted for the National Front previously and the NF’s vote was greatly diminished at the 1979 election.*

While I am sceptical about making too closer historical comparisons between May and Thatcher, it is plausible that May’s rhetoric might drive a similar wedge between those who waver between UKIP and the Tories, and those who are ‘rusted on’ UKIP supporters. If a snap election is called, this is certain a possibility. Otherwise, it will depend whether new Home Secretary Amber Rudd follows May’s hardline approach to immigration.