As Labour MPs depart in 2019 – haven’t we been here before?


Yes we have. It was January, 1981 and the right of the Labour Party felt thoroughly embattled. The Left had surged forward since the Labour general election defeat in 1979 bringing in Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. So – rather like Chuka Umunna and his group of six other Labour MPs, there were four very senior Labour politicians who quit the part very publicly in 1981.

Europe was a lightning rod issue in 1981….and 2019

The so-called Gang of Four (named after a group of plotters in Communist China) issued what became known as the Limehouse Declaration aiming a series of stinging attacks on the Left of the party. The four were Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. Jenkins, Williams and Rogers had all been ministers and grandees of the party – while Rodgers was a more junior player.

The party had been in ferment for nearly two years after being kicked out by the electorate. The Left blamed the previous Labour government’s policies of economic cutbacks and pay restraint for the loss of power. Their solution was a more robust, socialist party advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) and increased nationalisation.

I was very active in the Labour Party at this time and meetings often divided between those who wanted to nationalise the top 25 monopolies (Tribune supporters) and those wanting to go for 250 monopolies (Militant supporters). The seeming capitulation of prime minister James Callaghan and chancellor Dennis Healey to the demands of the International Monetary Fund for economic austerity was seen as a “class betrayal”.

There were also reforms to the party structure promoted by Tony Benn, a left wing MP, and his “Bennite” supporters. This included the option to deselect MPs and extending party leadership elections from just MPs to constituency parties and the trades unions. Needless to say, this all went down like the proverbial bag of sick with the Gang of Four.

From Gang of Four to The Independent Group

The Gang of Four formed the nucleus of a new political party, the Social Democrat Party (SDP). Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually defected and ran for re-election in 1983 under the SDP banner. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams were no longer MPs in 1981 (Jenkins had gone off to become President of the European Commission) but won seats in 1983. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals and their vote came alarmingly close to Labour, who scored an all time low. Thatcher won a second term.

Today’s Independent Group has veered away from forming a new party – probably with the SDP in mind, which went from hubris and electoral surge to eventual collapse into the Liberal Democrat party. But there must be a hope that they can peel off a significant number of MPs in the months ahead.

One has to be careful with similarities but in both periods, Labour had moved sharply leftwards; an atmosphere had been created in the party where centrist elements were marginalised and the eventual departure came as no surprise. Both today and in 1981, I suspect many on the Left were glad to see the split – believing it was evidence that the party was moving in the correct direction.

Differences between today and 1981

Europe is very much the overwhelming focus now and these seven MPs are solid Remainers who suspect Jeremy Corbyn is anything but. In 1981, the policy clashes were much broader and deeper. The Left was influenced by a Marxist critique of capitalism that covered everything from the ownership of the economy to a critique of “bourgeois” democracy. Today’s millennial socialists are – for the present – way less ideological and Momentum has nothing like the full throttled anti-capitalist agenda of Militant in the 1980s.

The MPs who have left are – in my humble view – of a lesser calibre to the Gang of Four. That could, of course, change with further departures – watch this space!

Grim times for gay people under Thatcher in the 80s


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Grim Times…

The 80s were a period of crisis for gay people – but emerging from the decade, the LGBT community would make huge leaps forward in the 90s and beyond. However, in 1989, an issue of Gay Times in my archives makes pretty sad reading.

For a start, the Conservative government had introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act which instructed local councils that they could not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. It would be illegal to present gay couples as an acceptable form of family life.

The repercussions of this legislation were very real – and intended. For years, Labour councils that had funded LGBT events, liaison officers and festivals had been crucified in the tabloids as being party of the “loony left”. Millennial readers may struggle to comprehend just how unacceptable it was to large swathes of British public opinion to tolerate gay relationships let alone fund anything to do with the LGBT community.

IMG_7744The Gay Times reported that the Scottish Homosexual Action Group was seeking a judicial review of a decision by Edinburgh District Council to no longer give financial support to open air lesbian and gay festival, Lark In The Park. A council spokesman agreed it had funded the event before but now couldn’t because of the change in the law. Section 28 had real and very sharp teeth.

Why were the Tories so hostile to LGBT people at this time? In the years leading up to Section 28, often referred to as Clause 28, the HIV/AIDS virus had hit gay people hard. Far from receiving sympathy, the tabloids and some very vocal politicians had portrayed the virus as a judgement on a “sick” “lifestyle”. It was referred to as a “gay plague” and in one survey in 1987, three quarters of the UK public stated they thought being homosexual was “always or mostly wrong”.

A “joke” published in The Sun newspaper went like this:

A gay man goes home to his parents and tells them he’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is I’m gay. The good news is I’ve got Aids.

To give you an indication of how bad attitudes were over AIDS on both sides of the Atlantic, a British man was deported from the United States when a small quantity of the drug zidovudine (AZT) and a business card from the Terrence Higgins Trust (an AIDS charity) were found on him by customs. Henry Wilson was held in a jail cell in Minnesota while on his way to San Francisco to take part in trials for a new anti-viral drug CD4.

IMG_7745As for Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister throughout the 80s, her supporters have argued in recent years that she liked certain gay men as individuals. But I’m afraid as a group, she kicked gay men in the teeth when they were already coping with friends and partners dying in their hands. When Section 28 was being repealed in 2003, Baroness Thatcher, as she had then become, sat next to Lady Young as she opposed the scrapping of this discriminatory legislation.

In better news back in the 80s, Denmark became the first country to legalise civil marriage for LGBT couples in 1989. But it was way ahead of the UK and most of the European Union at this time. If anything, the AIDS virus and a political move to the right had pushed LGBT rights backwards.

Remember your first pocket calculator?


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Pocket calculator – the key to popularity!

From memory, my first pocket calculator was given to me by Dad around 1977. Like the first mobile phones, it was a clunky bit of hardware. But it seemed magical. Not only could multiplication and division be done rapidly, there was no need for that dog eared log book to calculate cosines or my completely incomprehensible slide rule.

I hated maths. Always preferred arty subjects. But if I had to do maths – which I did to ‘O’ (ordinary) level – then I was going to use my calculator. Or so I thought. Because in the 70s, calculators were viewed as a form of cheating. So in spite of the march of technology, you still had to master the bloody slide rule.

Why? I mean, when I went to the local greengrocers, did the shopkeeper sit there with an abacus to work out my bill? No, there was a till. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why I was denied the opportunity to take my Texas Instruments calculator into the exam room.

Unbelievably, this debate has rumbled on into the 21st century! There are still stringent conditions about the use of calculators in GCSEs with some papers prohibiting their use. Obviously using a calculator in your smartphone is not allowed as somebody might be texting you the exam answers from outside.

All that aside, calculators were so amazing in the late 70s and early 80s, that the German band Kraftwerk even wrote a song composed on them. I saw this gig at the Lyceum in London in 1981.

Being a student union officer during the miners’ strike in 1984 to 1985


IMG_6956In 1984, the students at Liverpool University saw fit to elect me as Deputy President of the Guild of Undergraduates (student union basically). That summer I began my sabbatical year, which would be far stormier than I could ever have reckoned.

From the spring of 84, the miners had already gone on what would be a one year mammoth strike. This wasn’t your usual kind of industrial action. It was a battle. A war even. Unionised blue collar labour versus Maggie Thatcher.

The miners had brought down the Tories under prime minister Ted Heath in 1974 and forced Thatcher to a climb down in 1981. But….she had bided her time. Coal reserves were built up. And in 1984, Thatcher decided to face down the NUM. For her, this was part of a strategy to break organised labour in the UK. The miners knew this full well regarding themselves historically as a kind of vanguard of the proletariat.

To say the stakes were high would be putting it mildly. So what did we do in the student union? Well, to be honest, students were a bit irrelevant to all the main action. However, my little office soon had a small mountain of old clothes donated by students who wanted to help cash strapped miners’ families.

There were also coaches organised to take students down to picket lines but always rather thinly attended as they did leave at the crack of dawn – around the time most undergraduates were going to bed!

I got to know a couple of miners and one of them, Garry Knowles, was interviewed by me for the student paper. From memory, and I hope I spelt his name right there, he was working at Bold colliery. Bold and Sutton Manor were our two closest pits. Garry somewhat challenged my image of a miner – as portrayed by novelists like D H Lawrence and George Orwell – by being a spiky haired goth.

People put up miners in their homes when they went around the UK to speak at rallies and meetings. There was sometimes a clash of cultures, shall we say. I recall one very middle class woman detailing to us how a very large miner had somehow managed to walk through her French windows without opening them – very drunk at the time needless to say. I’ve no idea what injuries he sustained but her windows were beyond repair!

We also wanted to make donations to the miners but as a student union we were barred by the ultra vires laws – because we were a charity and could only give to bodies with educational aims. The Socialist Workers Party were always goading us to breach the ultra vires laws. But we came up with a smarter ruse.

Apart from being Deputy President of the Guild – a charity – I was also secretary of the area National Union of Students, a body called MASO that was not a charity. So the Guild made a modest donation to MASO that then passed on this donation to the NUM. Incredibly, the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, wrote to the Treasurer of the Guild telling her to retrieve the money from the NUM as it still bore the “imprimatur” of the Guild.

It was decided by the Guild officers that the Attorney General was talking out of his highly partisan backside and we ignored the letter. Nothing happened. And we all knew that the college Conservative association had put him up to this.

Fun times!

The Clash at the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978


Aged fourteen, I went on the huge Anti-Nazi carnival in east London in 1978. I got split up from my mates and ended up on my own – bit of a daunting experience. Got out at Embankment tube and watched loads of punks vaulting over the barriers while I politely inserted by ticket stub – as you did in those pre-Oyster days.

Then walked up towards Trafalgar Square glancing nervously at the big police vans nearby. I’d never seen anything like this and they were clearly looking for some aggro. The noise in the square was something else. A band was playing and the cheering was deafening.

At some point, we began the very long march to Victoria park in Mile End. I mean seriously, could you get people to go that far these days? Recall passing under the railway bridge near St Paul’s that was taken down in the 80s and then arriving at the park to hear more bands on a big stage including….The Clash!

But a small confession to make. I just don’t remember The Clash on stage at all. What my memories feature are X Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band. But….here’s The Clash and for some reason, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 got up on stage with them.

Build up to the Anti-Nazi League carnival 1978


I was at school with the son of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) boss Len Murray and together with a mate of mine, Mark, and some other kids, we all went down to the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978. It now seems like an epoch ago but was an incredibly exciting day.

The extreme-Right National Front had been gaining ground on the streets and in terms of votes in London. Since the mid-70s, the economy had been on a downward slide, the mainstream parties were failing to inspire young people and racism was being fuelled by sections of the media. It was a perfect storm for the neo-Nazis.

Even in my school in the east London suburbs, there were individuals who felt empowered to be openly racist. One pupil, who had been a mate of mine a year or two earlier, joined the British Movement. The target of their hate, where we lived, were Jewish and Asian people.

This documentary from the time gives a real flavour of how a movement arose through the Labour Party, trade unions and pressure groups to push back against the NF and the purveyors of race hate.

A grim discovery – flashback to 70s racism


Found this in my parent’s attic. A local newspaper report from 1978 describing how two skinheads had beaten up an Asian youth. It was yet another example of something described at the time as “paki bashing” – assaults by racist skins on mainly Asian youth.

While the article below quotes a community relations spokesperson saying attacks like this were becoming more frequent – there’s no mention of this being a racist incident. This was typical at the time. Both the media and police were reticent to point out what was blindingly obvious – that this 14 year old had been hospitalised because of the colour of his skin.

Many of the public also didn’t want to acknowledge the problem. But anti-Asian sentiment had been stoked for years by groups like the National Front and British Movement. The influx of Asians from the former British colonies of Kenya and Uganda, expelled by dictators who had taken power in those countries, was greeted with tabloid press hatred. This provoked appalling and senseless thuggery.

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