Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

The Thatcher government

205. Under Thatcher, the bourgeoisie sought to arrest the historic decline in Britain’s global position, destroying manufacturing industry and deregulating the City of London so as to expand its ability to speculate on global markets. While seeking to buy off a section of the middle class with the fruits of the speculative binge, described as “popular capitalism”, she set out to “roll back” socialism through union-busting, attacks on the welfare state and an aggressive assertion of imperialist interests. The response of the trade unions and the Labour Party was the emergence of what came to be known as “new realism”—an end to what were derided as out-dated notions of class struggle and workers’ solidarity, and the embrace of free-market nostrums. A central ideological role was played by the wing of the CPGB grouped around the magazine Marxism Today. It argued that Britain was now a “post-Fordist society” in which the working class had been reduced to an insignificant force, and urged Labour to embrace “identity politics” and consumerism to emulate Thatcher’s appeal to the aspiring middle class.

206. Time and again, beginning with the 1980 steel strike, the TUC and its affiliated unions refused to mount a political offensive against the government. They abandoned their 1982 commitment to oppose the Tories’ anti-union laws and allowed union-busting operations to succeed in the print industry and elsewhere. Within two years of Thatcher taking office, the “Gang of Four”—Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers—split from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Under the nominally “left” leadership of Foot, the Labour Party responded by expelling the Militant Tendency leadership in order to prove its anti-socialist credentials. In April 1982, Labour supported the Falklands/Malvinas War, helping secure Thatcher’s re-election in 1983. That year, Foot was replaced by Neil Kinnock, who set out to reposition Labour as something akin to the SDP, but with the crucial backing of the trade unions.

207. The full extent of the rightward evolution of the trade unions and the Labour Party was displayed during the yearlong miners’ strike of 1984-85. In order to subject the most militant and powerful section of the workers’ movement to a crushing defeat, the Thatcher government mobilised the police and army in military-style attacks, which left 20,000 miners injured or hospitalised, 13,000 arrested and 200 imprisoned. Two miners, David Gareth Jones and Joe Green, were killed. A scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) was set up in collaboration with sections of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) bureaucracy in Nottingham, and the NUM had its assets sequestered. The Labour Party and the TUC maintained the isolation of the miners, refusing throughout to organise a single solidarity strike.

208. Neither did the “left” challenge this abject treachery. Instead, Ken Livingstone in London and the Militant-led Liverpool City Council ensured that the fight against the government’s assault on local authority services was kept strictly separate from the miners’ struggle. The Stalinist trade union leaders, including those in the NUM, made regional agreements to maintain power and steel production, with union executives ordering their members to cross picket lines. The efforts to sabotage the strike from within were reinforced by the position taken by Stalinist NUM leader Arthur Scargill, who never once politically challenged the TUC and Labour leaders.

209. Concealed behind ultra-left rhetoric, the 1980s saw the WRP set about in earnest to build political relations with a faction of the Labour left, led by Greater London Council leader Ken Livingstone, and with the trade union bureaucracy. To this end, it offered an amnesty, in the pages of the News Line, to the most naked of betrayals carried out by the union tops. The main slogan of the WRP during the miners’ dispute was its demand for the TUC to organise a General Strike. Making the correct observation that such a movement would pose the question of power, it asserted that the next stage in the class struggle would therefore proceed directly to the formation of a “Workers Revolutionary Government,” thus bypassing any need to address the role of the Labour Party. The opportunist course of the WRP was most apparent in its abandonment of its previous criticisms of Scargill. It never once attempted to hold him to political account, instead offering to place the entire resources of the WRP at his disposal.

210. The miners’ strike ended with the virtual destruction of the industry and the disintegration of the NUM. Over the next period, overtly pro-company unionism of the UDM type became widespread within official TUC affiliates. Kinnock utilised the miners’ defeat to press ahead with the refashioning of the Labour Party. Declaring that the greatest struggle before the labour movement was the fight against alien Marxist tendencies, entryist groups and “Trots”, he rallied the Stalinist and Tribunite “left” and sought to convince the City of London that Labour could be trusted with its interests. Amongst the future New Labour luminaries who came to prominence at this time was Tony Blair, alongside ex-Stalinists such as Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson. They would later be joined by former IMG members such as Kate Hoey, Alan Milburn and Alistair Darling.

211. The WRP’s idealist mystification of Marxism played a central role in facilitating its adoption of an essentially Pabloite perspective. Healy’s pamphlet, Studies in Dialectical Materialism, published in 1982, became the basis for the party’s education work. Its reversion to the type of subjective idealist philosophy overcome by Marx in his critique of the Left Hegelians in the 1840s became the means of avoiding a concrete working-out of revolutionary perspectives, thus undermining the historically derived programme of Trotskyism. This was accompanied by an increasing reliance on politically untrained youth, who were pitted against older cadre—routinely denounced as “abstract propagandists”.