I heard recently that Dave Spencer has died. Dave and I were comrades together in the proto-AWL prior to a split in 1984, when Dave left with a group of people around Alan Thornett who he didn’t agree with politically. He spent a lot of his time after that complaining in various left publications about the “bureaucratism” of the “Matgamna sect.” He also did the rounds of various left groups (including for a while, even Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party!) looking for a political home he never found.
We’d got to know each other quite well in the late seventies and early eighties as we were in the same organisation and lived near each other, he in Coventry and me in Birmingham. I liked Dave and despite his later political trajectory, I choose to remember his early days and the positive contribution he made to the struggle.
In 2009 he wrote a long article (for the commune) which included a section on his experiences with left organisations that had related positively and successfully with the working class. I wouldn’t agree with all of it, but overall it’s a good piece and the best way I can think of to remember Dave:
I’ve been in various groups on the Left for 50 years. In my experience there have been a number of periods when Left Groups in the UK have connected with class struggles and grown as a result. In each case the method of organising has come from the members against the bureaucracy and sectarianism of the leadership. I will give a few examples.
The SLL and the Young Socialists
In the early 1960s the SLL (Gerry Healy’s group) took advantage of the formation of the Young Socialists by the Labour Party in 1960 to build a sizable youth movement. This was the period after 1956 – the loosening of the hold of the CP — with the Hungarian Revolution and Khruschev’s speech to the 20th Congress; the formation of CND and the New Left Review; the shock to British imperialism of Suez; and of course youth rebellion in the form of Rock and Roll. The SLL had gained some new members after 1956 and were less of an homogenous group than later. I was a delegate to the first Conference of the YS in 1960 which brought together a large group of independent youth, mainly sons and daughters of Labour Party members. There were three small factions operating within the YS – the official right wing faction around the paper New Advance edited by Roger Protz (later editor of Keep Left and then of Socialist Worker and then of the Campaign for Real Ale!); the SLL’s faction around their paper Keep Left and the paper Young Guard which united the Cliffites and Grantites (surprise surprise). Within four years Keep Left had taken over the NC of the YS and had built the YS into a large organisation. In 1964 when Keep Left was expelled from the Labour Party, we had 8,000 at a demo outside the LP’s Blackpool Conference.
The way the SLL achieved this was by getting University students to go into Council Estates to organise weekly discos and weekly meetings for the youth of the area. Delegates from the youth groups were then sent into their local constituency Labour Parties.
The students were organised in Marxist Societies in the University. They did not participate in the Student Union politics as Left students do now — pushing their own sectarian groups. The Marxist Society was open to any discussion of Marxism. In Leeds and Leicester where I studied we focussed our meetings on particular departments like Agriculture and Engineering as well as Economics and Sociology to try to get students discussing Marxist approaches to their particular academic subject. We then encouraged the students to accompany us to the discos.
The originators of this scheme were not the SLL Central Committee but some youth in Wigan YS who started a weekly disco which soon became very popular. Through Keep Left young socialists learned about the Wigan experience and copied it in their own areas. In those days Rock and Roll and jiving were banned in the city centre ballrooms so a local disco run by the youth themselves was naturally a winner. In Leicester three of us from Leeds aged 21 built an SLL branch of 30 within 6 months using the Marxist Society and YS disco method. Essential to this method was that the youth organised and controlled the discos themselves, not the SLL’s older members.
The problem was of course the bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of the SLL. Orders came from above and there was no trust in the life experience or creative ideas of the youth. Many of the older members of the SLL did not approve of regular discos because it made the youth more difficult to control.
The politics of the SLL became more esoteric and sectarian. I remember during the purge on Pabloism in the group in the early 60s, the regional organiser identified a member of our YS branch in Coventry as a Pabloite and was in full flight denouncing him when a spirited youth spoke up: “Hang on a minute Harry, he’s only 15 years old!” A sense of proportion and a spirit of humanity was not what you got in the League.
The International Socialists and shop stewards
The second example was in the late 1960s in the IS (later SWP) after the 1968 French Events; the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and Grosvenor Square marches; the rebellion in the Universities; and the Labour government’s “In Place of Strife” policies which were designed to curtail the power of the shop stewards’ movement. The SLL which was the largest Trotskyist group at the time refused to join the VSC demonstrations and were not very influential in the Universities. In a shrewd move, Tony Cliff opened the doors of IS promising democratic rights, freedom for factions, regular Internal Bulletins etc. He invited various groups to join and was particularly keen to attract disaffected members of the SLL. He toured the country and was very successful in recruiting new members. Jim Higgins claims that the reason for this opening up was that Cliff was frightened of the effects of Enoch Powell and fascism and that it was not a genuine anti-sectarian move at all. Nevertheless the move was effective.
The particular pro-active method used to build IS branches was the adoption of the industrial bulletin method from the French group Lutte Ouvriere. I believe this method started in Manchester where there was a nest of “Workers Fight” members who were active on the docks. Workers Fight was set up in 1967 by Sean and Rachel Matgamna and was the only group to take up Tony Cliff’s offer of factional rights. I was a founder member of Workers Fight. The point is that the LO bulletin method started at the grass roots not on orders from the Central Committee.
The industrial bulletin method is quite simple but takes a lot of organising. We used to produce fortnightly bulletins which were handed out at particular factory gates on both the day shift and the night shift, to both shop floor and office staff. Once a week there would be a paper sale at the factory gates as well. The bulletin itself consisted of one sheet of A4 with comment on topical political events on one side and comment on what was happening in the factory on the other. Naturally we needed contacts in the factory to get information and to discuss what went into the bulletin. At least once a fortnight a meeting of a factory fraction of IS members and contacts would discuss the next bulletin and how to produce and distribute it. Students were a vital part of this work because they had the time to distribute the leaflets in the early morning. We never exposed our factory contacts to the possibility of being sacked. In Coventry IS we had factory bulletins going into most of the major factories in the city. In 1970 we had about 100 members most of whom were shop stewards. At Chrysler we had an IS factory branch which had international connections with Detroit and Simca in France via the Lutte Ouvriere factory bulletins in the USA and France.
As with the youth discos, there was life and creativity in the method of organising. The IS leadership took a benign attitude at first, as had the SLL leadership. After all members were being recruited, papers were being sold.
However in 1971 Cliff decided to bureaucratise the group. There had been some disagreements over policies. For example Socialist Worker welcomed the British troops going into Northern Ireland in 1969. Also SW called for a No vote in the referendum on the Common Market – contrary to IS Conference which had called for a boycott. Actually there was quite a healthy if heated debate on both of these issues but Cliff unleashed a witch-hunt on Workers Fight as a means of asserting control on the organisation as a whole. The expulsion of Workers Fight was an excuse, a way of warning against any kind of dissent. Factions were banned, the Internal Bulletin closed down and after that, opposition groups were expelled or individuals left in dribs and drabs.
Politically the IS suffered from what we called “workerism” where worker members were flattered and appointed to positions in the group while the political level was kept deliberately low. Trade Union militancy was seen as the answer to all the problems in industry – a disastrous policy throughout the 70s and ending in the defeat of the 1984 miners’ strike. Open and democratic discussion of Marxist politics was not encouraged. Also national rank and file papers were produced by the leadership and the local industrial bulletins were dropped.
The Labour Party in the 80s
A third example of organisation from below was in the 1980s when there was a growth in the Left of the Labour Party as a result of the fight against Thatcherism and her attacks on local government and the Trade Unions. There was the Benn for Deputy campaign and the de-selection of right-wing MPs and local councillors. One would have thought that this would have been the opportunity for the third Trotskyist group Militant to come to the fore by opening up their organisation. Many people have claimed that this was the case and that Militant was the dominant force at the time. However Militant always maintained a strictly sectarian approach to organisation in the Labour Party. They never participated fully in Broad Left groups and in elections for Council candidates or Committee places in LP constituencies they would vote for right wing candidates rather than for any left wing candidates they thought they could not control. For example when I became a candidate to be a West Midlands County Councillor for Coventry South East which Militant thought was “their patch” their fury was unbounded and threats of violence were made. The Militant had voted for the right wing candidate against me. Later they organised to knock me off the shortlist for MP for Coventry North East by spreading rumours that I was a “sexist womaniser” in order to get on their preferred candidate, their “contact” Bob Ainsworth, now Minister of Defence for the Armed Forces. The fact that at the time I was responsible for an Adult Education Programme in a College in Coventry North East for working class women which in 1992 had 2,271 women on it and won the NIACE national award for Access to Education during Adult Education Week may give some idea of what sort of “sexist womaniser” I was! This was not a personal matter but a political method adopted by the Militant and I was by no means the only victim of this sectarianism.
Instead of opening up their organisation Militant maintained a top down control. Socialist Organiser did make some attempt to develop a broad base in the Labour Party but without any success. London Labour Briefing also played a role. The phenomenon was however that the Labour Left grew and organised without any real national centralised organisation. It was much bigger and in many ways more radical than the Militant.
The Labour Party structures provided a routine way of organising. These structures correspond to electoral activity. There are your local ward meetings to go to. The wards then send delegates to the local constituency. The constituency sends delegates to the district etc. We did have some power over selection and de-selection of MPs and councillors and we did have some say in local Council policy; so resolutions at Ward, Constituency and District levels did mean something. We did feel we were making a difference and we were. If the Left controlled a Ward, we could write our own leaflets for election campaigns and decide on our own candidates. Those powers have been taken away by the New Labour bureaucracy to control from the top down. Those comrades who claim that there will be a new upsurge within the Left of the Labour Party must think of new ways of organising. At the moment most LP meetings cannot get a quorum of members. And if they did get a quorum what would the members do? They have no power to do anything.
Methods of approaching the working class did tend to be based on routine. Canvassing was much easier than now because you had more members and usually met up afterwards for a drink. Some comrades did a questionnaire or survey of local problems as they went round canvassing – and then encouraged people to come to ward meetings and address the complaints and put resolutions to the local Council. Many a ward was taken over by the Left on this basis. We had our ward banners which we took on demonstrations. Some comrades had a regular stall in the local shopping centre where they tried to recruit people. Social activities were organised. Our local Labour Briefing group used to have meetings on a Friday night at one period — with a speaker and a buffet. We also organised crèches and baby sitters to allow parents to attend meetings.
This was all done from below. In fact there was no real centralised political leadership of the Left in the Labour Party in the 1980s. Also most of the Left were more radical than Militant.
Some other methods of organisation I have been involved in.
In the mid 60s after the YS discos had been stopped, a dissident Keep Left branch in Coventry that I was a member of, ran a Folk Club, the Bandiera Rossa, in a local pub. In 1966 we organised a May Day celebration in the Belgrade Theatre with Dominic Behan, Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeker and a local Irish group playing. The SLL boycotted it. They said it was petty bourgeois. We also ran a Rhythm and Blues Club in a pub for a while with a resident band called the Edgar Broughton Band which had a few hits at the time.
In the late 70s when Workers Fight (later AWL) joined the Labour Party and the LPYS (then dominated by Militant) we resurrected the idea of recruiting University students and organising social activities for working class youth. We called it “Wiganisation” after the Wigan YS branch of the SLL. Instead of discos in community centres we went for bands in pubs (as described above). In Coventry we had a good relationship with the two tone bands, the Specials and Selector and organised an anti-racist concert in the athletics stadium when there were some racist murders in Coventry. Unfortunately the WF leadership stuck to the recruitment of students without turning them outwards to the working class youth. We did have some very lively and creative youth members at the time. The women members joined “Women’s Voice” and were involved in lots of feminist activities.
In 1997 during the SLP general election campaign, some women SLP members (ex Militant) objected to going out on stalls in the shopping areas, like the Militant. They said that it was a con trick because the Militant used to get signatures on a petition for a Campaign, say about the local hospital and then get people to donate money to the campaign; but the money went straight into the Militant coffers. They suggested having a pitch at the local car boot sale. We had our banner over the stall and our papers and leaflets on the stall with second hand goods collected from SLP members to sell. The response from workers attending the car boot sale was very good. We got into a lot of conversations. We also made some money legitimately from the sale of goods.