Who, What, Why: What was Militant?

Who, What Why
The Magazine answers the questions behind the news

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Derek Hatton in 1986Image source, PA

Former Militant councillor Derek Hatton is attempting to rejoin the Labour Party. But what was Militant, asks Finlo Rohrer.

The battle between the Labour Party and its Militant faction was one of the biggest political controversies in British politics in the 1980s.

The Militant grouping had grown out of the Revolutionary Socialist League and was widely categorised as Trotskyist. From the mid-1970s its critics claimed it pursued an "entryist" policy of attempting to gain key positions within the Labour Party in an effort to promote its policies - including widespread nationalisation and a large programme of public works.

Its most notable success was in Liverpool where the local Labour Party - dominated by Militant members - took control of the city council in 1983. Despite being only deputy leader, former firefighter Derek Hatton was seen as effectively in charge.

"The best way to think of Militant is to think of Marxist-inspired socialists within the Labour Party," says Dr Peter North, author of Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge.

Liverpool was particularly receptive to Militant's ideas because it had found itself "on the wrong side of all the changes in global trade", says North. A move to "containerisation" - increased use of shipping containers - was taking traffic away from the port. That and a partly associated decline in heavy industry were exacerbating unemployment and deprivation in the city.

Militant started vehement opposition to the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, attempting to resist a reduction in the city's grant from central government by setting an illegal budget that allowed for more spending than there was income.

"They were in breach of Labour Party policies," says Peter Kilfoyle, a noted opponent of Militant who was a regional organiser for the Labour Party in the 1980s. "They sought to go illegally against the government of the day when Labour Party policy was not to.

"They were a party within a party. Their sole intention was to eat away at the Labour Party from the inside - taking away members and funding. They did it successfully."

Image source, ALAMY
Image caption,
Crowds protest against Militant's management of Liverpool in 1985
Image caption,
Derek Hatton was seen as the figurehead of Militant

Supporters of Militant point to the wave of building it initiated in Liverpool, replacing slum housing and improving sports and other leisure facilities.

But the council did not have enough money to pay for its programme, and action by the district auditor was averted only by taking out loans. A move to apparently issue redundancy notices to every single council employee - ostensibly as a negotiating tactic - was widely criticised.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock used a conference speech to attack Militant for "the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers".

In June 1986 Hatton was expelled from the Labour Party after a disciplinary hearing. A number of other politicians and activists were also thrown out.

"The decision was made to get rid of them," says Kilfoyle. "They were in breach of the rules of the Labour Party."

But North argues that Militant were harshly treated.

"My view is that political parties that have a variety of attitudes within them are more democratic and healthy."

More from the Magazine

How an extreme group of left-wingers took over Liverpool City Council 30 years ago and opposed Margaret Thatcher's central government.

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