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Fleet Streets Fear of Rank-and-File Control

(September 1975)

From Militant, No. 272, 26 September 1975.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

An article appeared in The Observer of the 31 August 1975 in which its author Nora Beloff attempted to discredit the supporters of this paper – the Militant. Many rank and file Labour and Trade Union members must have asked themselves why The Observer should have chosen to use its front page to launch an attack on us, to be followed by a gaggle of geese by other papers up and down the country.

The answer is obvious of course. They see growing support for our ideas. They see working people more and more prepared to struggle to protect their jobs and living standards. They see their friends on the right wing of the Labour Party coming under pressure from the rank and file. They see their hold over the Party slipping and they dread the future. Therefore they need a bogey to try and provoke a witch-hunt, as if that would stop the elemental movement of the working class anyhow.

We are confident that the Party will refuse to be stampeded by the Tory press. We express our ideas in an open fashion. We make no secret of our determination to struggle for a fighting leadership and a democratic socialist Britain. In the best traditions of the Labour Movement we will test our ideas in open debate, as Nora Beloff in the worst traditions of the capitalist press will fight for its millionaire owners against any move to the left in the Labour Movement, using any method, as an examination of her material over the years will show.

For example, she wrote:

“At his request I have agreed to withdraw my suggestion that he had promised to support direct action to make the Trade Union Bill unworkable since this might give the impression that he was personally inciting violence.”

The above quote was taken from an article written by Nora Beloff for The Observer on the 5 December 1970. Who is she referring to? The writer of this article? One of the readers of Militant? A mysterious conspirator?

No. In the above case the person in question was none other than Harold Wilson. In the same article which appeared on the 5 December 1970, she went on to say:

“Politicians like poets must be allowed rhetorical licence.”

I think that quote could be well applied to some political columnists, not least Nora Beloff.

“I am sorry to trouble you again (I’m not normally a great one for writing to the papers) but I must remark that your Miss Beloff in a frantic desire to avoid admitting she could conceivably be wrong tries to wriggle out of one gross inaccuracy by perpetuating another. Her second shot at attributing to me, without quoting a shred of evidence – opinions I have never held or expressed is as baseless as the first.”

“Her standard of accuracy is evident by the fact that she wrote that the ‘Tribune’ Group is smaller in this Parliament than the last and when I wrote to tell you it’s bigger she rests her case on some third parties who believe it is weaker in this Parliament than the last. The second hand beliefs of third parties are no substitute for the facts.”

The above quote is an extract from a letter which appeared in The Observer. Who wrote the letter? The supporters of this paper complaining about a recent article? Wrong again. This particular letter appeared on the 13 of June 1971 and was written by Ian Mikardo. Despite the fact that Ian Mikardo was a member of the Tribune group, and I think could claim to know what his own opinions are and the size of the group he belonged to. Nore Beloff apparently knew better.

I think that the two quotes I have given would be sufficient to show how much reliance should be placed on Nora Beloff’s assessment of leading figures in the Labour Movement. Her account of the role they play and political views they hold should be treated with extreme scepticism to say the least, as they would be by any honest thinking member of the Labour Movement. Since when did the capitalist press and its millionaire Tory owners ever espouse the cause and interests of the Labour Movement and the working people.

The capitalist press will always seek to misrepresent and discredit any Labour figure that reflects and represents, even if only for a given period , a movement of the working class, which seems to the employers to threaten their profits and questions their power and what they consider is their right to rule.

For example, Nora Beloff on the 1970 Labour Party Conference wrote:

“The dominating figure at this years Labour Party Conference has been Mr. Jack Jones. Mr. Jones behaved as if the platform were a dock and Mr. Wilson and his colleagues self-evident traitors to the socialist cause.

“Mr. Jones succeeded in getting the Conference to reject out of hand any ideas of incomes policy.

“The first question that needs to be asked is how far the Party’s rank and file share Mr. Jones’ Red Flag definition of socialism.”

She went on to say:

“Judging by the motions adopted and rejected at Conference the Labour Party might seem to be lurching wildly to the left.”

The thought that the Labour Party might be moving to the left fills Nora Beloff with horror and in this she accurately reflects the concern and fear felt by the ruling class. They see the danger, posed to them and their system, now that their hold over the Party through the right wing leadership being challenged by a re-awakening of the rank and file of the Party, this might lead to the selection of representatives more sympathetic and understanding to the problems of the working class!

In the same article she went on to say,

“Union leaders dispose hundreds of thousands of votes representing members who are not even consulted.

“Real people (she said) would not want a Labour Government to frame its policies in accordance with decisions of a Conference dominated by union bosses.”

Can we expect her to say the same about the TUC decision to accept the £6 limit and the cut in living standards that goes with it? I somehow doubt that, although if the decision had gone the other way the whole of the capitalist press would have screamed in unison that the “Union Bosses”, to use Nora Beloffs expression, did not represent the views of their membership.

She continued:

“Mr Jones specifically declared he would oppose any form of wage planning until capitalism was abolished and replaced by a fully collectivised people’s democracy. In this he claimed to be speaking for the masses, though it might seem relevant that only 0.1% voted Communist at the last election.”

“It might seem relevant that only 0.1% voted Communist” says Nora Beloff, note the innuendo, the attempt to discredit the views expressed by Jack Jones at the time, by the hoary old red scare tactic. In the same article Nora Beloff quoted Hugh Scanlon as saying “If the Tory assaults on the Trade Unions are to be repulsed we will need the support of everyone in the Labour Movement.” She goes on to say:

“But can the Labour Party afford to support them? The Parliamentary group know how damaging it would be for the party to be tied up with union militancy.”

Her concern for the Labour Party is really touching, but notice the reminder to the Parliamentary Party of where their duty lies, just in case some of them forget it.

The right wing of the Party can always rely on Nora Beloff to advise them. For instance on the 29 November 1969 she wrote:

“Left wing union and constituency reps combined yesterday to ensure that the Government policy towards the Common Market will get a rough passage at the Conference when it is debated ... But as before the Government need take no notice of resolutions.”

She was referring to the composite resolution on the Common Market moved by the T&GWU. We had noticed Labour Governments are inclined to ignore our Conference decisions Miss Beloff, but no doubt they are gratified that you noticed and approved.

Nora Beloff is also very concerned about the independence of Labour MPs as she wrote on October 31, 1971:

“The left wing are making no secret of their determination to impose extra-Parliamentary controls over the Parliamentary Party. In last weeks debate Mr. Norman Atkinson of the ‘Tribune’ Group insisted because the Labour Party represents a variety of opinions it must accept the rank and file decisions taken outside Parliament.

“The threats to the independence of MPs come not only from the party’s former chairman the extremist Mr. Ian Mikardo, but also his successor Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, now as dedicated as he was to the concept of imposing militant control over elected representatives.”

On October 3, 1971, in an article entitled Why they gun for Jenkins she wrote:

“Conference is now left wing Marxist dominated… The Labour left which wants to exploit public anger about the economic situation is certainly helped by Mr. Heath’s calculated abandonment of what used to be called consensus politics. Rage over the apparent managerial indifference to the spread of unemployment and what can only be called distressed areas has given a new impetus to the left wing leaders, Mr. Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones who advocate not reform but overthrow of the present mixed economic system. (my emphasis).

“Conference cannot of course force its decisions on the PLP, MPs are responsible to the electorate not conference.”

Again on October 10, 1971, in an article entitled Nora Beloff our political correspondent tells how the Party dealt with its Red Guard. She waxed lyrical:

“The Party’s Red Guard – helped by Ian Mikardo’s partisan chairmanship (note the insinuation), the voting strength of the militantly Marxist Trade Union leaders and the dedication of ‘Tribune’ fundamentalists mounted an all-out anti-Jenkins campaign ... But in a magnificent display of revived political virtuosity Harold Wilson neutralised them at least temporarily.”

Miss Beloff can be relied upon to rush to the defence of the so-called ‘moderates’ and lash out at anybody who dares to suggest that Labour Party Conference should determine policy or that the rank and file of the Party should have control over Labour MPs. They must be independent, independent to ignore all those who worked so hard to put them there, independent to abandon the Party Manifesto, independent in other words to carry out the needs and dictates of Big Business and their mouth-pieces in the press.

In an article entitled How class warriors are using Europe in trying to take over the Labour Party she wrote on October 31, 1971:

“The Common Market now has shaken Labour to its foundations, produced a mood of turbulence and rage and brought to a head the struggle for control between the moderate Parliamentarians and the hard line class warriors.”

Renee Short “Extremist”

“What is at stake is not whether Roy Jenkins and his friends win next months elections for the shadow cabinet (though the vote will be highly significant) it is whether MPs directly responsible to the electorate are to retain control over party politics or whether the Common Market row will provide the chance take-over by the left wing extremists who repudiate the two fundamentals of modern Britain, a mixed economy and a Parliamentary democracy.”

And she goes on to say:

“Ever since the ultra left won control of the major unions – and thus the block vote over Conference – there have been sporadic but always unsuccessful efforts to capture the Party.

“Left wing extremist Mrs. Renee Short exposed the reality last weekend when she publicly repudiated the whole Wilson era and called for an end to the mixed economy – which could only mean the nationalisation of everything.”

I’m sorry if that’s a distortion of what you said Renee, but that’s what Nora Beloff interpreted you as saying and she has demonstrated how unbiased and (to use a journalistic phrase) ‘objective’ she is.

In another article she gives the views of unnamed third parties, a favourite method of Miss Beloff’s when she wants to get a message across:

“A row is brewing in the T&GWU decision to review the record of their 27 sponsored MPs before deciding whether to endorse them again at the next election.

“There are some Labour Organisers including at least one Trade Union leader who believes that the constitutional anomaly of having MPs sponsored by what amounts to private pressure groups must stop.”

Militant will give a prize to any reader who can names the Trade Union Leader and the highest number of Labour Organisers. First prize will be a bound copy of Nora Beloff’s articles, second prize – three copies.

Any move to the left in the Party is faithfully reported in Nora Beloff’s column in a fashion calculated to give the impression that the originators are plotting behind the scenes. For instance she wrote on the 9 June 1968:

“The first combined campaign by left wing politicians and Trade Union leaders to capture the Labour Party has begun. The initiators include two members of the National Executive, Tom Drieberg and Ian Mikardo, as well as the director of Tribune, Michael Foot and the leader of the Transport Workers, Frank Cousins. They hope for a public disavowal of Government policies at Labour Party Conference in the Autumn. Failing this they are ready to dig in and fight a protracted struggle to pull the Party away from what they derisively call consensus politics and back to the class struggle. Many weeks of gestation with private meetings and deals between the various people and groups involved have ended with an agreed text entitled Socialist Charter.

“The organisers tell me their aim is to capture the Party from the bottom up.”

The history of the Labour Movement is littered with scare campaigns from the Zinoviev Letter to Churchill’s claim, splashed in the press, that if Labour won the 1945 election there would be a new Gestapo. But they will be of no avail; no scare stories can hold back the movement of the working class once aroused. In 1945, on programme of nationalisation, Labour had a landslide victory at the polls. In the coming years, the producers of all wealth, the working people, whatever the difficulties, whatever the set backs, will move in their millions against the real conspirators who live off the backs of the workers, the handful of monopolists, property tycoons and press barons.

We would argue that although the media is a powerful weapon in the hands of the ruling class, the real determining factor that will decide the way the working class will move in the future is rooted in the problems of their everyday life, problems which cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism and require a socialist system to solve them. Despite all their capitalist propaganda, they will be unable to halt the struggle for socialism and prevent the new world the workers will build.

The Militant is a valuable weapon in this struggle – a paper, with no millionaire backers, but built on the pennies and shillings of working people. We call on all our readers to help us expand the size and sales of their paper, so we can print the truth and play a part in countering the lies and distortions of the Tory press.

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Last updated: 9 April 2016