Christopher Massey writes that the expulsion of Militant members in the 1980s broke not only their hold on Liverpool City Council, but resulted in the realignment of Labour’s left into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ factions. He argues that today’s party must similarly decide whether the weight of recent polling and past history require a fundamental break with groups associated with the Corbyn era.
Labour’s interaction with, and tolerance of, left-wing groups within the party has particular contemporary relevance. Its retiring leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has long-standing affiliations with the Campaign Group of Labour MPs, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and, more recently, Momentum. Since 2015, Momentum has been widely accused of entryism: the infiltration of the party from a small but organised campaign group, with the aim of capturing control of the national party. Consequently, a number of comparisons have been made between Momentum and the Militant, the left-wing group deemed ineligible for affiliation to the Labour Party in 1982.
Despite different ideological underpinnings and Militant’s largely regional base compared to Momentum’s national successes, the two groups do share many similarities. Both managed to popularise left-wing issues within the party using large memberships: Militant had 8,100 members in 1986, whilst Momentum boasts 40,000 members as of January 2020. In addition, each group had been vilified by the media, including by Labour’s traditional right, soft left and ‘moderates’. Yet the most significant comparison between the two groups concerns their organisational abilities and influence. Militant, chiefly in Liverpool in the mid-1980s, and Momentum, nationally from 2015, have wielded great power within the party’s structures.
Momentum – and Labour’s hard-left more broadly – established a vice-like grip on the levers of power. Momentum played a key role in Corbyn’s 2015 and 2016 leadership campaigns and continues to hold the balance of power on the party’s National Executive Committee and within constituency parties. In addition, Corbyn has also been successful in installing hard-left candidates to senior positions, such as the appointment of Jennie Formby, a former Militant member, as General Secretary – the party’s top official. These victories have allowed the installation of Momentum-sponsored candidates in vacant parliamentary seats. More recently, following Labour’s 2019 defeat and Corbyn’s resignation announcement, plans to reorganise staff at the party’s head office were roundly criticised by MPs and trade unions as an attempt to secure a left-wing legacy.
Although Militant never held such sway at a national level, they did capture the levers of power in Liverpool in the mid-1980s. Whilst it did not have a majority within the Liverpool Labour Group, the City Council was heavily influenced by Militant. In particular, Militant controlled the key offices of the Liverpool District Labour Party: Tony Mulhearn as Chair, Terry Harrison as Vice-Chair, and Felicity Dowling as Secretary. Militant’s strength within the local constituency de jure ensured the selection of Militant supporting Council candidates, and de facto developed policy and strategy for Liverpool City Council’s Labour Group. Within the Council, prominent Militant Derek Hatton served not only as the Council’s Deputy Leader but also as the Chair of the Personnel Committee which controlled new staffing appointments. Militant’s sphere of influence within the Council and its decision to set an illegal budget brought the group into confrontation with Labour’s national leadership.
Between December 1985 and February 1986 the Labour Party conducted an investigation into the Liverpool District Labour Party following the Council’s decision to send resignation notices to all staff. The Liverpool Inquiry, as it became known, not only led to the expulsion of senior Militants in Liverpool but altered the national balance of power on Labour’s NEC. Before the Inquiry, the NEC was narrowly balanced 15:14 in Neil Kinnock’s favour. Reports of Militant’s entryism, rule breaking, and, in some cases, intimidation led five members of the NEC to ‘defect’ from the hard-left (which refused to sanction expulsions of Militant members) and move towards the Labour leader. The creation of a ‘soft left’ grouping on the NEC including Tom Sawyer, David Blunkett, Eddie Haigh, Michael Meacher and Sam McCluskie gave Kinnock his first stable majority at the party’s top table. From March 1986, the divide at Labour’s NEC was 20:9, giving Kinnock the ability to pursue not only the expulsion of Militant members, but also widespread policy reform after the 1987 election.
Despite Labour’s left turn after Corbyn’s election in 2015, the tactics of the Militant have not found widespread endorsement within the party. In 2015, Corbyn and John McDonnell, the leader’s close ally and Shadow Chancellor, urged Labour Groups not to set illegal budgets. This position aligned with Neil Kinnock’s famous speech to the 1985 Labour Conference which condemned Militant in Liverpool for the ‘grotesque chaos’ of playing ‘politics with people’s jobs and people’s homes and people’s services.’ However, at Labour’s 2018 Conference in Liverpool, Dawn Butler, the party’s Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, showed some sympathy for the 1980s clarion call of Militant stating: ‘over 30 years ago the Council stood up to Thatcher and said – “better to break the law than break the poor.”’ Responding to Butler’s comments, Corbyn seemed to soften his 2015 stance, stating he understood why councils might set illegal budgets in the future. In this backdrop, the readmission of Hatton to the Labour Party in February 2019, and his subsequent suspension from membership two days later, also brought the issue of the Militant’s tactics in Liverpool during the 1980s back into the public gaze.
Ultimately, Neil Kinnock decided that purging Militant from the party, alongside widespread policy changes, were required to re-establish Labour’s electability. In contrast, Labour in the post-Corbyn era has yet to decide whether one more heave on a left-wing ticket with Momentum support, or if a more fundamental shift in its leadership and policy agenda is needed to re-establish electability. Kinnock’s action over Militant had a decisive effect. Before the party’s 1985-86 Inquiry into the Militant tendency, Labour held an average polling lead over the Conservatives of 1% in November 1985, yet by the end of the investigation the party had an average lead 5.6% across five polls in February 1986. However, no such decisive break appears to be on the horizon in 2020. Following their December 2019 defeat, with a leadership election looming, Labour has yet to understand that its recent failings cannot solely be attributed to Brexit, as argued by Momentum and Corbyn’s allies. In the post-Corbyn era, the party must break the shackles of its recent past to return to government, with so many polls suggesting that the chief culprit for Labour’s catastrophic defeat was its retiring leader.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Contemporary British History.
About the Author
Christopher Massey is Lecturer in Politics and History at Teesside University.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash