If the Party fight for a General Election between 1975 and 1979 transformed it into an unintentional instrument of Tory policy, its campaign for Community Councils from 1981 on made it a conscious agent of Social Democratic treachery. From now on, all the work of the WRP leadership was concentrated on developing its anti-working class alliance with sections of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy. This new line was inaugurated in practice, not without a few problems, in January 1981.
Faced with Tory demands for a cut in local services, the Lambeth Labour Councillors, led by Ted Knight, had to decide whether to fight the government and defend services or seek a way around the confrontation, at the expense of the working class, by raising local tax rates.
The WRP came out against the raising of the rates. In the News Line of January 7, 1981, an editorial entitled “Don’t do the dirty work” warned:
“Local councils who put up rates to try to beat the Tory cuts are playing with fire. Not only is it economically absurd—rate increases simply cannot compensate—but it means political suicide.
“It is dangerous for other reasons. It off-loads the burden of Tory policies on to working-class families, who are already facing the most terrible problems in terms of unemployment and exorbitant charges for gas, electricity, heating and public transport.
“It also lashes the middle class and turns potential anti-Tory allies into bitter opponents of Labour and the trade unions. This is what the Tories want”
But one day later, on January 8, 1981, the News Line reported that Lambeth had been forced to raise rates. By January 9, 1981, it was editorially supporting the rate increase: “If the council had not decided on a supplementary rate it would have resulted in a major financial default, the councillors being surcharged with a £11.2m deficit and a takeover by government commissioners. That would only help the Tories and it would be horrendous for the future of the boroughs.”
Seven years earlier, the WRP had advanced a revolutionary policy to defend social services. It had stated: “Housing, health and education are public services which must be first call on the nation’s wealth. The nationalization of the land, of the building and building material industry, of the banks, of the drug manufacturers is the only basis for building up these services.
“The debt of these necessary services to the banks and money lenders must be cancelled immediately. Labour councillors must be made to repudiate the debts and provide the necessary services.” (WRP Perspectives, Adopted August 1, 1974)
This policy was thrown overboard in order to line the Party up behind the Lambeth reformists. Healy arranged for the publication of a special 24-page edition of the News Line on January 17, 1981, which included an eight-page supplement devoted to heaping praise on the Lambeth councillors and Ted Knight. An editorial board statement called on a “Crisis in Local Government” Conference in London to “give full support to Labour-controlled Lambeth Council” which, it claimed, “has taken a correct and decisive stand.”
Denouncing the attacks made by various revisionist groups against the Lambeth decision to raise the rates, the News Line phrase-mongers wrote: “Lambeth councillors are the very first to admit that they cannot go on subsidizing the Tory cuts with rate increases. Its political cost would be disastrous and economically can’t be done.
“But this isn’t the argument. The issue at Lambeth is whether to declare bankruptcy, get banished from office by central government and let in the Tory commissioners or to stay and fight the Thatcher-Heseltine slump policies...
“We don’t believe that Lambeth or any other Labour council should commit political suicide. Their task is to stay in office and campaign for the development of the mass movement against the Tories and for the unity of all sections of the community against Thatcher‘s slump policies..,
“It would be ludicrous and reactionary to terminate the Lambeth struggle now, which is what the revisionists want before the main war has begun.”
This was simply the language of Parliamentary cretinism, in which the fate of the working class is made dependent upon defending the portfolios of petty reformist politicians.
Healy made no attempt to keep his political books straight. Just two years before, he had insisted that a Labour government be brought down under conditions in which the WRP admitted that the Tories would carry out savage attacks on the working class if they won the election. Now the same Healy was arguing that “it would be ludicrous and reactionary” for the Labourites to “commit political suicide”...by defying the Tories!
By January 19, 1981, the News Line was calling on workers, in a full-page editorial, to “Stand firm by Lambeth Council.” An absolutely shameless apology was made for the Labourites, denouncing all those who opposed their decision to raise the rates. Healy’s skull-duggery rendered meaningless, under the circumstances, the use of the term “revisionism.” Petty-bourgeois groups were given new stature by the treachery of the WRP leaders:
“The revisionists take the ‘no rates increase’ resolution and turn it into a moral issue. On Saturday, they used it to beat the Lambeth councillors without giving a moment’s consideration to the vastly changed objective situation and the overriding necessity to develop the anti-Tory front from decisive bases like Lambeth.
“There is no such thing as a solution via rates increases, and the Lambeth council never said there was. But the majority on the council were absolutely correct to introduce a supplementary rate last week in order to hold the line against Thatcher and stay at their elected posts...
“Those who give up the old gains without a fight can never make new ones. Those who preach such a solution are really ‘Thatcher’s people’ because they are speaking ‘her’ language....
“In other words, behind their fake ‘left’ words, and their talk of a ‘militant stand’ against the Tories, they are in fact hellbent in getting Labour out of Lambeth and the Tories in.”
This was nothing but the rhetoric of Stalinism employed by the WRP to cover its opportunism and denounce those opposed to the Social Democrats. This intervention demonstrated that the WRP was being consciously transformed into an appendage of Social Democracy, thus completing its desertion from Trotskyism into the camp of centrism. By 1981 the WRP was explicitly defending the capitalist state against the working class, even justifying attacks on the labor movement by referring to the fiscal problems confronting government officials.
Along these lines, the News Line of January 20, 1981, denounced those who attacked the rate increases for not recognizing that “we are living under capitalism. And capitalism in the phase of enormous crisis in which the rights of the Welfare State are being smashed by an ultra-reactionary Tory government.”
This right-wing line, though developed by Healy, struck a chord among a layer of social democratic professors who had been snoring away for years inside the WRP—only emerging from their academic lairs whenever they were needed to side with Healy in a factional war against those within the Party who defended a proletarian line. Among those who enthusiastically stepped forward to defend the Lambeth reformists was none other than Hull University’s Tom Kemp. He likened opponents of the rate hike to the German Stalinists who campaigned in 1931 alongside the fascists to bring down the Social Democratic government in the infamous “Red Referendum.” Unfortunately, Kemp’s article should have been written two years earlier.
In the course of his tortured article, Kemp had a flash of insight into the real significance of the “Lambeth Turn”:
“It gives an opportunity for developing respect for the Workers Revolutionary Party among sections of the labour movement who have only just begun to move away from reformism. In this regard it widens and deepens a relationship with the centrist currents that can overcome very rapidly what was seen as the revisionist dangers of the future.”(News Line, February 21, 1981)