Entries and exits

Mike Macnair continues his historical summary of British Trotskyism's attitude to Labour Party work

At the end of the first part of this series we left the Trotskyists in 1969, having mostly pulled out of Labour Party work (‘In, out, shake it all about’, October 28). Left behind were the Revolutionary Socialist League (mark three) or Grant group, which was ensconced in effective control of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and had launched the Militant newspaper in 1964, and the small Revolutionary Communist League (RCL), formed in 1969 from a fusion between a group which had split from the International Marxist Group over entry and a splinter from the RSL.

In the next period, some of the prodigals were to return ... and at the end of it the Militant, almost the longest-standing and certainly the most successful Trotskyist ‘entryists’ in Labour, were to leave, and in doing so to split over the issue.

1970s broad left

Before looking at the evolution of the Trotskyists’ tactics towards Labour in the period from 1970, it is necessary to turn aside from the question of the evolution of the general political situation in the 1970s and the role of the Communist Party.

The International Socialists and International Marxist Group had abandoned Labour Party entry just at the moment when the downswing in Labour’s internal life, caused by the prospect of electoral victory in 1963-64 and the fact of Labour government in 1964-70, was coming to an end. A rising wave of strikes in the 1960s led the capitalist class to demand, through the judiciary and the media, new controls on the trade unions. Prime minister Harold Wilson and minister of employment Barbara Castle - both former ‘Bevanite’ Labour lefts in the 1950s - obliged in 1969 with the white paper In place of strife, which foreshadowed the modern anti-union laws. The unions, through the Communist Party-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), and the Labour left, fought back and In place of strife was abandoned.

The capitalists therefore dumped Wilson in 1970 for Heath’s Conservatives, who immediately brought in anti-union laws. Coming after the defeat of In place of strife and at the tail end of the long boom and period of full employment, the effect was not to control industrial action, but to politicise it. The 1972 miners’ strike ended in a defeat for the government. In the same year the new industrial relations court was neutered when widespread solidarity action and the threat of a general strike over the jailing of five dockers produced their release. Labour - as is usual - moved left in opposition, and its internal life grew.

Finally, Heath in early 1974 embarked on another confrontation with the miners which was plainly going to lead to defeat, and called for an election on ‘who rules the country’. The election left Labour as the largest minority party, the ‘men in grey suits’ told Heath he must go and Labour was put back in.

The result of this form of the defeat of the Heath government, and the international context (which included the Portuguese revolution and in 1975 the US scuttle out of Vietnam) was that - unusually - left-right inner-party struggle continued at a considerable level under a Labour government, and the first years of the Thatcher government saw a continuation of this struggle rather than - as in the past - a revival of Labour leftism in a new form when the party lost office.

The broad Labour left was intertwined with the CP-led broad left fronts in the trade unions and the analogous CP-led Broad Left in the National Union of Students, which had succeeded in winning control of the NUS with the election of Jack Straw as president in 1968. There was no organised Labour broad left, but British road to socialism ideas of a left British nationalism and an industrial revival, and the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ approach of a bloc of labour with industrial capital against the City, were widely current on the Labour left in the wake of the ‘Barber boom’ and subsequent bust under the Heath government.

The CP, in fact, was doing rather well in the early to mid-1970s: from its wartime peak of 56,000 members (compare the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party’s 500 at the same period), it had declined to a little above 30,000 in the early 1950s, and after Hungary 1956 fell to 26,000. By 1975 it was back up to 30,000. But the CP itself was moving right with the development of Eurocommunism: a development which went along with falling membership in the later 1970s, but whose full implications were only to become clear in the 1980s.

Over 1974-79, the CP’s industrial base was weakened and its trade union fractions became more than ever dependent on the union bureaucracy. The reason was that that the Wilson government was able to deliver the conditions for the employers’ counter-offensive. The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 ‘repealed’ Heath’s anti-union legislation, but left many of the restrictions in place, providing an instrument to discipline unofficial strikes. The government promoted centralised wage bargaining as part of its ‘incomes policy’, undermining the shop stewards and local bodies. The Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1974 took negotiations over sackings out of the hands of the stewards and local organisations and gave them to tribunals and centrally employed union lawyers. The check-off system of collecting union dues, increasingly widespread, weakened the branches’ connection with their membership. At the macroeconomic level, ‘stagflation’ - the combination of rising unemployment and rising inflation - made strike action on any issue except pay less attractive, while the employers were by and large willing to negotiate on pay and simply raise prices.

In spite of its splintering, Trotskyism in the 1970s was a much larger tendency than it had been at any time before. How the Trotskyists related to the Labour Party in this shifting situation, and in the 1980s in the face of Thatcherism, is therefore a larger and more complex question than the experiences of 1930-59 and 1950-69.


It is convenient to look at the long-term entry groups first, because their history is simpler, and then the Labour Party question, as it affected the ‘open party’ groups.

The initial difference between the RCL and the RSL/Militant was the difference between the ‘broad front’ conception, which the RCL inherited from the IMG (and other Trotskyist groups), and the conception of linear recruitment through open defence of a party programme, which characterised the RSL.

As a result, the RCL entered and took over Socialist Charter, originally a Labour left broad-front project. But the majority of the RCL/Chartist rapidly evolved towards Eurocommunism and the RCL as such dissolved. Chartist became a broadly Eurocommunist project in the Labour Party (which still exists), while the informally organised ‘Chartist minority tendency’ (Chris Knight, Graham Bash and others) continued to operate on a semi-Trotskyist basis in various broad fronts, re-emerging in the 1980s as another broad-front project, Labour Briefing.

The Militant, left alone in the LPYS, was able to build itself by recruiting among the youth. At some point between 1965 and the early 1970s (its own histories are unhelpful on when) it developed its distinctive strategic/programmatic conception of a legal revolution, in which ‘Labour’s Marxist Tendency’ would first win control of the Labour Party, then win a general election, then pass an ‘Enabling Act’ through parliament to implement a programme of nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies and so on. The result was a strategic conception much closer to the British road and the ideas of the Labour left than the ideas of any other Trotskyist group were.

On this basis, after Young Communist League entryists and their fellow-travellers’ ‘Operation Icepick’ had protected the CP’s student territory by carving Militant out of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), the Labour broad left protected Militant from being purged from the LPYS, and its growth there could work through into gradual growth in the adult party. Attempts at a witch-hunt from 1975 only gave Militant additional publicity and credibility. By the 1980s it had above 5,000 members and three Labour MPs, with an exceptionally strong base in Liverpool.

The sharp rightwards development of the Eurocommunists, the 1981 Social Democratic Party split from Labour and the accompanying media offensive against the left, the defeat of the miners in 1984-85, and the ignominious collapse of the pretensions of the ‘local government left’ at the same period over rate-capping and illegal budgets, removed the shelter of the broad left from Militant and more serious witch-hunting measures were taken from 1985. Meanwhile, from 1988 Militant was drawn into the anti-poll tax struggle. This was precisely because as part of the Labour Party it had an electoral network reaching into the working class districts, which the other Trotskyist groups, based on the campuses and in the unions, lacked.

A rightward-moving Labour Party, the fact that Militant’s main party bases were under serious siege from the witch-hunt and success in the poll tax struggle, led the majority under Peter Taaffe to decide in 1991 to leave Labour. The result was a split with the minority, led by the historic leader of the group, Ted Grant. The majority, initially Militant Labour, gave birth after further splits to today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales and to the Scottish Socialist Party. The minority formed Socialist Appeal to continue the long-term struggle in Labour.


The Socialist Labour League entered the 1970s as by a long way the largest Trotskyist organisation and the best implanted in industry. It foresaw an impending 1929-style crash and a short-term settlement of accounts between the classes, and in 1969 launched a daily, Workers Press. It also launched an ostensibly broad-front competitor to the LCDTU, the All Trade Union Alliance (ATUA) - in fact it was a pure front for the SLL. Through the period of the Heath government, its line of a general strike to bring down the Tory government had a certain real agitational purchase, and the SLL continued to grow, reaching over 3,000 in 1973, when it renamed itself the Workers Revolutionary Party.

Along the way, in 1971 Healy broke the group’s loose relations, which had continued since 1953, with the French anti-Pabloite organisation led by Pierre Lambert. As a result it shed a small number of Lambertistes, who went into the Labour Party and organised themselves as the Bulletin group, which was later renamed (under the new management of John Archer) as the Socialist Labour Group.

After the fall of Heath, Healy, who had less and less relationship with reality, continued the line that a crash was imminent: the WRP must promote the line of a general strike to kick out the ... Labour government. Peculiarly, in industry this implied a line that the workers should ‘hold their fire’ until the big day came. In 1975 Alan Thornett and others in Oxford created an opposition to this line, influenced by the Bulletin group. They were promptly expelled from the WRP and formed the Workers Socialist League, a group almost wholly based in Oxford, but with some outliers elsewhere. The WSL adopted what is best described as a policy of ‘shallow entry’. It joined the Labour Party, but its political work and paper Socialist Press remained focussed on the trade unions and on the critique of other Trotskyist groups.

As WRP numbers declined from their 1973-74 peak, Healy in the late 1970s shifted to an ‘anti-imperialist’ orientation, which allowed him to obtain (limited) funds from the Libyan regime. He also attempted to get closer to elements of the trade union and Labour ‘official left’. One result was that in 1981 the WRP provided staff and material backing to Labour Herald, the Labour left paper launched by Ken Livingstone after he won the leadership of the Greater London Council, and ex-SLLer Ted Knight (who had rejoined the Labour Party in 1970, and in 1978 became leader of Lambeth Council).

The 1984-85 miners’ strike and the collapse of the ‘local government left’ brought down Healy, the WRP and Labour Herald. At the initial split between pro- and anti-Healy wings, the two sides mustered a bit under 800 active members between them: a substantial group for the Trotskyist left, but a far cry from the SLL at its height, let alone from Healy’s fantasies. The process of splintering was to continue until all that was left was micro-groups.

IS-SWP and offshoots

The International Socialists’ unity offensive in 1968, and the decision of the IMG not to join in, allowed the IS to sweep up most of the elements radicalised in the Vietnam campaign - it grew from 450 members to just short of 1,000 during 1968. It also offered a serious perspective in industry - that of ‘rank and file groups’, as opposed to the involvement of the CP broad lefts in the bureaucracy. From 1969, therefore, IS aimed to ‘turn’ its new forces to work in industry - with factory leaflets, trade union contacts and so on.

From 1970 it embarked on the practice of ‘open recruitment’ - inviting almost anyone it met to join, with the intention of rapid growth and integrating the new members afterwards. Like the SLL, it grew in the early 1970s, and around 1975-76 developed the conception that it had become a ‘small mass party’. This was reflected in the beginning of an electoral intervention in 1976 and the change of name to Socialist Workers Party in 1977. At the same period, the ‘rank and file’ industrial perspective failed (like the CP’s industrial base) as a result of Wilson’s union laws and the other shifts of the period.

From the beginning of the open recruitment policy, it has been difficult to assess how big the IS-SWP actually is (even its own leaders have often deceived themselves). In the early 70s it certainly had major influence in the shop stewards’ movement, playing an important practical role (for example) in some of the solidarity initiatives round the 1973 miners’ strike, especially the ‘battle of Saltley Gate’. In this phase it had some similarity with the broader and less tightly organised formations of the Italian far left like Lotta Continua, which some IS members admired. In this form, the loosely organised membership probably reflected a real political affiliation, and the IS may well have overtaken the SLL as the largest Trotskyist group by some way.

But ‘Bolshevisation’, the various early 1970s splits and the decline of the shop stewards’ movement led the IS-SWP to stabilise at a lower real membership level in the later 1970s. Its deployed forces in its public initiatives, and its financial resources, suggest that it arrived at a fully organised and dues-paying membership of around 1,500-2,000 at the time of the launch of the SWP, and has remained at that level ever since, though the paper membership figures have at various points been up around 10,000 and remain now - after recent ‘corrections’ - around 5,000.

The ‘party turn’ led the SWP to shed a large chunk of its former leadership and of its industrial base in 1975 in the Protz-Palmer-Higgins group, but this did not survive long as an organised group. The electoral turn was markedly unsuccessful, and its results worsened when the IMG entered the electoral field through the left front, ‘Socialist Unity’ - and did as well as or better than the SWP. Electoral intervention was showing up the SWP as merely another left group, not “the revolutionary party”, and was therefore abandoned in 1978.

Though it did consider entry in response to the shifting politics of 1975-76, the SWP has remained since then and to date on the ‘open party’ perspective. Its Labour Party orientation is an imitation of the old CP’s: to deploy ‘united front’ (actually popular front) work, on the basis of diplomatic agreements with the official lefts, for which the SWP provides (as it were) contract labour. The labour supplied is mainly recruited on the campuses. This orientation began with the Right to Work Campaign in 1976-77 and the Anti-Nazi League shortly after, and has continued through various forms down to the present.

The 1968 IS unity offensive picked up not only a lot of recruits, but also a parasite: the micro-group, Workers’ Fight, round Sean Matgamna, which had recently constituted itself after passage through the SLL and RSL (mark three), decided on entry in the IS. The Matgamna group worked as an organised ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ faction in the IS - the Trotskyist Tendency - with considerable success. It multiplied its own numbers by about 10, and also created a climate in which, for a period of time, there was significant discussion of theoretical issues in the IS. Expelled from the IS in December 1971, the Matgamna group returned to the name Workers’ Fight, and initially maintained an ‘open party’ orientation.

There were to be two further aftershocks of this discussion. The ‘Right Opposition’ or ‘Discussion Group’ faction in IS, like the Matgamna group, criticised the theoretical basis of Cliff’s state capitalism, but was influenced by old-time RCPer Roy Tearse, who was not a member of IS. Expelled from IS in April 1973, the faction promptly split between the followers of David Yaffe (who had done most of the theoretical heavy lifting), who formed the Revolutionary Communist Group (now Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!) and the followers of Tearse, who entered the Labour Party as the secretive and weakly organised ‘Discussion Group’. They engaged in low-level Labour work, combined with internal discussion without a public face; emerged to participate in the Labour Herald project; and after the failure of that project collapsed, winding up in 1988.

The Birmingham-based ‘Left Faction’ had supported the expulsion of Workers’ Fight but - after moving into and out of formal existence as a tendency over the next three years - was expelled in 1975 and formed Workers Power. It moved more or less immediately into fusion with Workers’ Fight (the new organisation was called the International Communist League); but, as has since become a recurring pattern, Matgamna was unable to sustain unity when differences emerged - in this case on the Labour Party. Workers Power emerged, still as an open organisation, in 1976. Later it was to shift to a ‘shallow entry’ perspective, producing elaborate Theses on reformism in 1985 to bless this turn, which lasted till the 1990s.

The Matgamnaites launched into entry and in the run-up to the 1979 general election a broad-front project, the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, involving Chartist (both wings) and Ken Livingstone. This in turn gave rise to a broad-front paper, Socialist Organiser, albeit resourced and organisationally controlled by the Matgamnaites. But again the Matgamnaites were unable to sustain unity, even in a broad front, and the coalition broke up over the local government question in 1980-81, leaving Socialist Organiser as the ICL party paper.

In July 1981 the ICL fused with Thornett’s Workers Socialist League, under that name, but liquidating Socialist Press in favour of Socialist Organiser. The fusion was already in crisis by 1982 over the Falklands/Malvinas war, and after part of the old WSL departed in April 1983, the remainder were expelled in April 1984, and formed the Socialist Group. Some old WF-ICLers had now had enough of Sean’s recurrent behaviour pattern of courtship, rapidly followed by violent split, and went with them.

The politics of this split was that the Matgamnaites were in process of reorienting to the campuses, albeit within the framework of NOLS. Finding the SWP dominant and the IMG departed, they elected to differentiate themselves from the SWP by a bloc with the Union of Jewish Students against SWP students’ support for ‘no platform for Zionists’. However, this implied a larger rejection of ‘third-worldist’ anti-imperialism and led to a general reorientation of the Matgamnaites’ politics from the ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ which had been the formal basis of their fight in the IS, and the fusions with Workers Power and the WSL, towards the semi-Zionist Shachtmanism which has deepened since.

Socialist Organiser continued - the group had a supporter selected to fight Wallasey and was able to run a general election campaign in 1987. This attracted a press witch-hunt, and in 1990 the paper was banned. To remain in the Labour Party the group ‘wound up’ and started a new journal under the name Workers’ Liberty, becoming the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. In 1995 it made an abortive attempt to unify with Briefing, which lasted no more than a few months.

IMG-SL and splinters

The history of the IMG after 1969 is a history of kaleidoscopically shifting factional alignments, with two repeating undertones. The first was the international faction struggle between New York and Paris which began that year, initially over Paris’s adaptation to the Guevarist ‘prolonged people’s war’ line in Latin America, and spread to pretty much everything. New York’s supporters in the IMG argued - until 1980 - for a return to entry; and some Mandelites argued episodically for Labour Party fraction work. The second was about the choice between a broad-front policy, which saw the involvement of the official lefts as key to effective action, and a far-left regroupment policy.

The decision to reject Cliff’s unity offer in 1968 was almost certainly wrong, but in the immediate term was blessed by a degree of success. The IMG grew from under 100 in 1968 to around 200 in 1972 and 600 by 1975, remaining at this approximate level up to 1980. Efforts from 1970-71 to replicate the IS’s industrial turn had only very limited success, but the IMG did begin to develop bases in the white-collar and public sector unions, and had a strong presence in student politics.

Between 1973 and 1975 the formal line of the group was to pursue broad-front initiatives involving the official lefts, described as the ‘punctual united front’. Meanwhile, minority supporters were pushing a far-left regroupment line, and took some open initiatives towards (a) far-left cooperation in single-issue campaigns and (b) ‘far-left unity’ projects in the unions: notably the Socialist Teachers Alliance in the NUT and Socialist Caucus in the civil service union, CPSA.

Part of the supporters of the US SWP split in 1975 and formed a small entry organisation, the League for Socialist Action (LSA). In 1975-76 the majority, urged on by Ernest Mandel, made an attempt to develop Labour Party fraction work on the project of building a movement to defend Labour’s (leftist) 1974 manifesto against the Labour government: this fizzled out and the IMGers sent into Labour either drifted out of Labour or out of the IMG.

After this failure, the majority temporarily adopted the minority’s ‘far-left unity’ line, with some success - as indicated above, the Socialist Unity electoral front derailed the SWP’s electoral project. But the Ford’s strike in autumn 1978 exposed the continuing marginality of the IMG in industry, and the visible approach of a general election tended to marginalise far-left electoral tactics. Moreover, in 1978-79 the faction fight between Paris and New York was (apparently) liquidated by the formation of a large majority including both sides, on the platform of a global ‘wrenching turn’ to industry (sending the ex-students and white-collar workers to colonise factories). The IMG ‘took the turn’ and in doing so cut its membership by a third over 1979-81.

Under these conditions a group led by Peter Gowan and Bob Pennington argued for a turn to full entry, which was accomplished in 1982 together with refusion with the LSA and the adoption of the names, Socialist League for the group and Socialist Action for its paper.

Meanwhile, the Paris-New York fight had reopened, with New York breaking with Trotskyism in favour of a left-Stalinist or Castroist line; and the supporters of New York now argued against the entry policy and for maintaining the ‘turn to industry’, and won a large minority.

Inside the Labour Party, the old issue of broad-front politics versus revolutionary regroupment reasserted itself in the form of attitudes to the ‘local government left’ and in particular how far it was appropriate to make public criticism of Ken Livingstone; and, conversely, how far the SL should be involved in far-left projects like Labour Briefing.

The miners’ strike greatly exacerbated these issues, since the pro-New York faction claimed it confirmed their ‘turn to industry’ line, while it added the issue of how far the press should make public criticism of Scargill. In 1985-88 a complicated process of manoeuvres between five factions - (1) pro-New York, (2) the central leadership round John Ross, (3) pro-Paris, (4) ‘entry and regroupmentist’, and (5) a localised group in outer west London - ended with a three way split. The ‘entry and regroupmentist’ faction led by Hearse and Packer split and formed the International Group. The pro-Paris and outer west London factions successively split to join the IG. Though the pro-New York faction was now left as the clear majority of the SL membership, the Ross faction had control of the leadership and expelled it shortly before the conference due in early 1988. The New Yorkers formed the Communist League as an open project.

The Rossites now organised themselves round the broad-front Campaign Group News (launched 1985-86) with Socialist Action mutating into an erratically appearing, occasional theoretical review.

The IG in 1987 fused with the Socialist Group to form the International Socialist Group. Initially, this looked like a serious project of Trotskyist regroupment within the Labour Party, and was joined by the ‘Chartist Minority’ and by the Lambertiste SLG, producing a group of over 200, which was the largest of the ex-SL fragments.

It did not take long, however, for problems to emerge. In particular, a section of the ex-IG leadership was tempted towards the idea of open work by the development of the Chesterfield socialist conferences into the ‘Socialist Movement’ from 1987. As a result, the sections of the ISG most closely committed to strategic entry in the Labour Party and the Briefing project dropped out, though the ISG remained in - increasingly shallow - entry until 2000.

By the end of 1991, therefore, the large majority of Trotskyist and semi-Trotskyist groups - the SWP and ex-Militant ­- were again outside the Labour Party. This tendency was to continue down to the present.


The last 18 years can be treated much more briefly. The period has been characterised by a series of attempts by groups outside the Labour Party to create a ‘Labour Party mark two’, which have been repeatedly discussed in this paper. For present purposes their relevance is only the impact on the entry groups.

Conditions inside the Labour Party have been characterised by a high degree of centralised control by the right, and even where - as in the run-up to the 1997 election - Labour membership rose, this has been accomplished by media advertising and bank direct debit payment rather than by local organisation. The Eurocommunist and ex-left element of the old ‘soft left’ has by and large become an element of the hard right, with elements of the old Labour right (Kaufman, Hattersley) criticising Blairism from the left. Under these conditions the left within Labour has been declining and hanging on by its fingernails, rather than taking significant initiatives or growing, and a large part of those Trotskyists who still remained in Labour have been attracted by open work.

Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, though only actually launched in 1996, had been in gestation since 1992 - with the old pro-Paris faction of the SL of Brian Heron, Pat Sikorski and others, which had joined the ISG, involved in the negotiations. This faction pulled out of the ISG and Labour to join the SLP as the Fourth International Supporters Caucus; Workers Power also partially shifted ground from Labour to a degree of support for the SLP. But the SLP rapidly ran into the ground through Scargill’s bureaucratic control.

The attempt which got furthest was the Scottish Socialist Alliance/Scottish Socialist Party. Originally a part of Militant Labour-SP’s counter to Scargill, the SSA was able to ride on the back of Tommy Sheridan’s role in the poll tax campaign; achieved a fair degree of electoral success and a wide regroupment; mutated into a left nationalist party; and finally crashed on the cult of the personality of Sheridan which had given it its success. The SSA-SSP drew the Scots ISGers and AWLers out of the Labour Party.

The next attempt was the Socialist Alliance. Ken Livingstone’s decision to run as an independent for mayor of London, and the London Socialist Alliance trying to run on his coat-tails, involved an SWP turn to electoral work, but also shifted the ISG pretty much wholly into open electoral work and led the AWL to turn in this direction, while retaining a Labour Party fraction. A significant part of Briefing also went over to the SA project.

Respect grouped another layer of anti-war ex-Labour types, especially from localities with large populations of south Asian origin in east London and Birmingham. It did not, however, bring more Trotskyists out of Labour.

Socialist Appeal, while remaining formally committed to strategic entry on Ted Grant’s conception, has in practice shifted to a complete focus on Venezuela solidarity and cheerleading for Hugo Chávez.

A slight counter-tendency is provided by two relatively recent developments. The first is that Permanent Revolution, which split from Workers Power in 2006, showed some indications of supporting some sort of Labour Party work. The second is that the AWL seemed in 2008-09 to be on the verge of joining the Socialist Party in characterising Labour as a purely bourgeois party. However, Matgamna has made a vigorous counter-offensive and the group may be in process of returning to, at least, organised fraction work in Labour.

This narrative has been bald and simplified; the reader may also have found it long and tedious. But putting the whole narrative together makes certain recurring patterns stand out. In the third and final article in this series I will look at these patterns and how they can be explained by theory and historical context.