What has been won can easily be lost

I'm part of the union

Peter Purton Champions of equality: trade unions and LGBT rights in Britain Lawrence and Wishart, 2017, pp194, £20

Champions of equality is a narrative history of the role of the trade union movement in the rise of ‘LGBT+ rights’ more generally. It is also a book with a political message - one which is very valuable, but still incomplete.

Peter Purton was appointed as the Trade Union Congress’s first LGBT and disabilities officer in 1998, and retired in 2016. Before 1998, the book’s blurb tells us that he worked “for Natfhe [National Association of Teachers in Higher and Further Education - since 2006 part of the University and College Union] and in the voluntary sector” and that he has been a “political activist and LGBT campaigner since the 1970s”.

There is a bit more to be said on the latter aspect of his career. He was a member of the International Marxist Group’s Lesbian and Gay Commission from 1976. In that context he was an advocate of a campaigning approach to the official structures of the labour movement as a central element of strategy for lesbian/gay liberation. He was thus one of the central architects of the approach of the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights from 1978.

He argued, on similar lines, for an orientation to the official bodies of the labour movement, in the general politics of the IMG and its successor organisations before he became a Labour Party member. In the mid-1980s he was an advocate of taking seriously the trade union side of the movement - as opposed to those who thought that the trade unions were a busted flush and only what happened in the Labour left mattered.

Comrade Purton’s historical account is thus, from the mid-1970s on, a ‘participant history’. But it is also much more than a ‘normal’ participant account: he is an academically trained historian, and the text shows the usefulness of these skills.1 He has made extensive use of books, articles and ephemera of various sorts, as well as oral-history interviews, with 46 people acknowledged in the preface. The resulting narrative and references make the book a mine of useful information about its subject.

The story begins in a sense surprisingly early, with TUC congratulations in 1924 to early socialist and sex radical Edward Carpenter on his 80th birthday, and Daily Herald and trade union opposition to the 1928 prosecution of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The well of loneliness (pp15-16). These are ‘contextualised’ with the late 19th and early 20th century “emergence of homosexual identities”, with German campaigns in the same period for decriminalisation of homosexuality, the extensive persecution of homosexuals under Hitler, actual decriminalisation in Russia after 1917 and its reversal under Stalin.

The main body, however, begins with the 1970s. Chapter 2 covers that decade, chapter 3 the ‘breakthrough’ of the early to mid-1980s, chapter 4 the period between 1987 and 1998, chapter 5 the Blair government, chapter 6 trade union international work in LGBT solidarity. Chapter 7 is a quick survey of the situation as of 2017.


The basic political message of the book is stated at the outset. There was an important trade union contribution to LGBT struggles for equal rights, but this contribution has been rendered invisible - not just by politicians and the media demonising trade unions, but also by “deliberate choices made by self-appointed spokespersons for the LGBT movement” (pp2-3).


The widespread belief that victory has been won [in the struggle for LGBT rights] and we can all go and party ... is false and potentially very dangerous. One reason for this is that LGBT rights and liberation do not stand alone, but are necessarily part of a very much bigger picture. Economic and social policies impact as strongly on LGBT people ... as on any other part of society, and in some cases more so - due to ongoing social and economic exclusionary practices and violence (p4).

As a result, “LGB and T people who are not members of the club of the super-rich need to be trade union members” (p5).

These arguments are straightforwardly true and important. The history narrated in the book supports them.

In the 1950s-60s the trade union movement was controlled by cold war bureaucrats who were fans of conservative views on gender, and this fact informed the ideas about the movement of the ‘new left’ and ‘children of 68’. But it was under a Labour government that the limited reforms of 1967 were introduced.

And, as Purton’s history shows, gay rights campaigners of the 1970s-80s encountered hesitancy and bureaucratic obstacles in the trade unions, but relatively little outright reaction. In my own limited experience, running an article in an IMG factory bulletin for the Cowley car plant in 1976 against the victimisation of a local gay teacher was much less controversial than we had imagined it would be, and my own ‘coming out’ on the shop-floor of the car plant attracted only a certain amount of ordinary piss-taking rather than hostility.

The decisive moment was, of course, the miners’ strike and Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). As Purton shows in chapter 3, ‘Breakthrough: the early 1980s’, this was not unique: the positive policy of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone, and a number of high-profile victimisation cases, took place around the same time. But LGSM certainly made the decisive impact - both because it went far deeper into the gay men’s club subculture than radical politics had before and, on the other hand, because the miners’ strike, even though it ended in defeat, was a full-scale battle of class against class, involving very wide mobilisation. That in turn led to the adoption of policy by the Labour Party and in a wider range of trade unions; and it formed the context of a much wider cultural opening up of the acceptability of homosexuality.

It is, then, true and important that the organised labour movement has been a champion of ‘equalities’ in general against the Tories, their media, employers and business lobbyists, and the police and the majority of the legal profession. But it is incomplete.

The first point is not so much a gap as an issue of emphasis. Comrade Purton draws attention towards the end of chapter 1 and in the beginning of chapter 2 to the role of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which was a British copy of a US development; and in chapter 2, at pp31-32, to the role of the far left in the initial organising efforts to take the issue up in the trade unions in the 1970s. In the main body of the narrative, the organised far left almost disappears from view thereafter, in favour of the activities of named and unnamed individual trade union activists and later officials.

This is, however, misleading. In the first place, whatever the (real) virtues of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (founded in 1964 as the north-western branch of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, itself founded in 1958), it was very much a single-issue organisation, and only changed from a “committee” to a “campaign” after the appearance of the GLF - it was not apt to orient to the labour movement. It was the leftists - initially activated by the GLF, its left image of a ‘liberation front’ and its identification with the campaigning techniques of the US civil rights and anti-war movements - who were likely to lobby the labour movement in particular, and hence the trade unions, for lesbian and gay rights.

Secondly, the role of the organised far left persisted well after the 1970s. Both the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights in the 1980s and LGSM were noticeable for the significant roles played by the non-Labour left as well as the organised far left within Labour. Moreover, the LCLGR certainly called on support from the broader Labour far left to mobilise for its party conference resolutions; and, though I am less familiar with the individual trade union lesbian/gay groups, I am willing to bet that the same is true of them.

The left groups also transmitted a variety of political skills to their activists (as well, no doubt, as less desirable sectarian habits). The unions transmitted political skills too; but ‘professionalisation’ (increased centralised bureaucratic control), both in the unions and in the left, has reduced the transmission process.


There is a larger point involved here. While it is certainly true that Engels “shared Victorian prejudices” on this issue (p16), the basic claim of the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race” is readily generalisable to other specific oppressions. It was generalised to the case of homosexuality by Eduard Bernstein, while he was still a Marxist, and in the German Social Democratic Party’s support for the decriminalisation campaigners before 1914. The ‘familism’ of Stalinism and cold war social democracy was in conflict with this underlying idea of the Marxists.

In contrast, pro-capitalist political operations necessarily seek to secure the solidarity of at least a section of workers with representatives of the boss class against other sections. ‘Solidarity with the boss class’ can be asserted on the basis of nationality (very commonly), religion, liberalism (equally commonly), race, gender (women invited to vote for Clinton; men invited to vote for Trump) or, closely connected with the issue of gender, on the basis of sexuality. The Tories and their associated media used the smearing of party political opponents with homosexuality as a form of code for Tory patriarchalism in the 1690s, 17-teens, 1750s ... and relatively recently in the 1980s, in the episode of “section 28, Local Government Act”, which Purton recounts (pp86-88).

In the recent past the reverse has occurred. The Tories have legislated for gay marriage, and the 1967 act was generally celebrated in the media.2 The royal wedding has been celebrated as an anti-racist occasion; and, conversely, the ongoing media and Labour right campaign for solidarity with US Middle East policy and with Israel has smeared its opponents as ‘racists’.

Two sides of the same point. The underlying message from the right is that workers should solidarise with the political representatives of the boss class against other workers. It does not matter from the point of view of the capitalist class whether the ground of such solidarity is to be racism or ‘anti-racism’, Brexiteering or ‘remainism’, patriarchalism or liberal feminism.

This should strengthen Purton’s point that LGBT people need collective action and trade unions. The problem of the 1950s-60s trade unions round this, and women’s issues and race, was not that workers could not in that period be won to equal rights politics, but that the unions were (mainly) controlled by pro-capitalist British loyalists, whose ‘familist’ politics flowed from their loyalist political commitments. Similarly, the ‘familist’ politics of Stalinism in the same period flowed not from its simulacrum of an independent working class politics, but from its political expropriation of the Russian working class and hence its need to run nationalist and patriarchalist policies crudely modelled on those of prior class elites.

But this, in turn, takes us back to the issues of the role of Marxist ideas and groups: that is, of class-political independence and the aspirations of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Working class LGBT people, like other working class people, need trade unions. They also need workers’ cooperatives, mutuals and so on. In particular, they need a party which goes beyond the mere aspiration to workers’ political representation within the British constitution (Labour), to one which aspires to workers’ political power and to overcoming capitalism altogether, and hence to the idea that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.

My second point is also a matter of emphasis. Right at the end of the book, comrade Purton rightly comments: “There are severe risks of a rightwing backlash of terrifying proportions driving back these historical gains [those of LBGT+ people’s rights] - as we have already seen beginning to happen in the United States.”

The historical problem is that the “equalities agenda”, of which the policy gains of LGBT+ people is part, is also an aspect of the USA, as the world capitalist hegemon, showing other countries their futures (and so, it must be said, was the GLF and, on a larger scale, the women’s liberation movement). This aspect of the development is relatively underplayed in comrade Purton’s history.

I have written on this issue and the problems associated with tailing the liberals on the ‘equalities agenda’ relatively recently in articles in this paper: ‘Is Trumpism the future’ (January 18); and in the latter part of my polemic against the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, ‘Across the board’ (April 26). So I will not repeat the arguments in detail here.

The underlying point is simple. Workers have genuine interests in an equalities agenda, which are not shared by capitalists. However, attempting to defend the equalities agenda against the right populists by making a bloc with the liberals who seem to share this agenda is illusory, because it commits the labour movement to the other side of liberalism - its ‘neo’-liberalism and responsibility for the radical growth of inequality. As long as the choice on offer is either the right populists or endeavours to cling to the centre and restore the practices of 1989-2009, the right populists are bound to win, as they have done in a whole series of countries - most recently Italy, with ‘Trumpism’ and Brexiteering only the most obvious to British observers because of the biases of the news media.

This brings me back to my first point, about the role of the radical left in the history. The GLF and a whole raft of similar organisations partly reflected the endeavours of western ‘soft Maoists’ to find reasons (in countries without a big peasantry) to reject class politics in favour of a form of people’s front. The Eurocommunists picked up the idea and ran with it, eventually dissolving the ‘official’ Communist Party in their opposition to class politics, and in the name of ‘new times’ which would later come to be called ‘intersectionality’.

Comrade Purton’s argument insists, against this view, on the necessity of trade unions. But his narrative, being presented largely as a history of single-issue activists without other political commitments winning changes to union policies, tends to reinforce the image of the ‘intersectional’ approach. As long as the left clings to this approach, as opposed to class politics, it prepares the ground for the victory of the right populists.

Mike Macnair



1. For example, his 1977 Oxford PhD was ‘Politics and war in the sixteenth century state: the case of the United Provinces 1585-1609’; he has also published A history of the early and late medieval siege (two volumes, 2010) and The medieval military engineer (2018).

2. Some relevant references can be found in my ‘1967 and all that’ (Weekly Worker October 19 2017).