In the post-war period, MI5 (the British state’s internal security agency) paid little attention to the activities of Trotskyists in Britain, regarding the threat that they posed to be minimal. But the rise of the Militant in the 1970s and 1980s – a tightly organised, professional and theoretically trained organisation founded by Ted Grant – completely transformed the secret services’ perception of Trotskyism.
For the first time, it came to regard it as a serious subversive threat. Today, the best traditions of Trotskyism and the Militant are alive and growing in the International Marxist Tendency.
There can be little doubt that the British state has had a long and disreputable history of spying on – and attempting to undermine – the labour and trade union movement.
In particular, radical campaigning organisations have been targeted by bodies such as the police and MI5 over the years, often to the point of illegality.
The ‘spy cops’ revelations showed how undercover police officers have infiltrated various campaigns, often remaining hidden for years. These spies often acted as agent provocateurs, pushing activists to carry out acts for which arrests could be made.
Now a new academic study by George Kassimeris and Oliver Price, published by the journal Contemporary British History, takes a closer look at how the state sought to take covert action against Trotskyist groups in Britain, and in particular the Militant.
The first part of the study outlines the basic history of British Trotskyism from 1937 onwards – mainly drawn, it must be said, from old and not always totally reliable source books.
Informers and infiltrators
During the Second World War, the state did carry out an investigation in 1944 of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) to see if it posed a threat to the war effort. Attempts were made to recruit informers and infiltrate RCP meetings, with little success it should be noted.
The state was particularly concerned on account of the fact that in the midst of World War Two, all the main parties were in a wartime coalition.
On the left, the Communist Party was under orders from Moscow to support the Churchill cabinet. It played a despicable role in breaking strikes of workers, who it argued must subordinate their interests to the bosses in order to win the war. The RCP was left as the only opposition party in the whole of Britain.
MI5 noted that in the course of the war, the Trotskyists evolved from “an unimportant handful of talkers” in 1940 to become “a disciplined body of some size, having programme, finance and organisation and the determination to use them” by 1945.
The agency was particularly interested in the WIL, led by Ted Grant and Jock Haston and which would become the core of the RCP. They were particularly interested in its ‘armed forces work’.
MI5 was particularly concerned when the RCP was formed, noting that this was the first time a Trotskyist organisation’s name “began to be heard outside its own slummy basement rooms”.
No action was taken, however, despite the complaints from His Majesty’s Loyal Communist Party. And, indeed, after the fragmentation of the RCP following the war, the various left groups linked to Trotskyism were pretty much ignored from then on until the emergence of the Militant tendency.
It was understandable that the secret services should regard Trotskyism now as a diminished threat. With the post-war boom and the strengthening of reformism and consensus politics, the RCP soon fell apart into various factions – most, with the exception of Ted Grant’s group, having little connection to reality.
The difficult conditions of the period meant that it was difficult to get a foothold. Social peace seemed to be the order of the day.
This changed with the rise of the anti-Vietnam war campaign in 1968. The Labour government was sufficiently concerned about this wave of youth radicalism to set up a special section of the police – the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS, later becoming Special Branch) – to keep track of what was going on.
Spies targeted the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign; although they later concluded that the government's fears had been overstated: “Despite the impact the Trotskyists were able to have on the protest movement [against the Vietnam War], MI5 believed that its influence was always going to be limited because the Trotskyist movement was so divided.”
But the state would soon find that it had severely underestimated the Trotskyists.
By the mid-1970s, the attention of the state had turned to the Labour Party and the trade unions.
The old consensus politics of the post-war boom had long gone; and a growing left presence in the movement had alerted the state to the potential dangers of a radical shift inside the mass organisations of the working class. A right-wing Labour Party was fine, but a left-moving one was cause for concern.
An MI5 investigation in 1975 conducted a “wide-ranging investigation” into “the extent of subversive infiltration and influence in the Labour Party”; and at this point, the secret services picked up on the growing strength of the Militant tendency.
The secret services were alarmed at the growing influence of Militant inside the Labour Party:
“Trotskyist ‘entrism’ … in CLPs [Constituency Labour Parties] presents a direct threat to some MPs and thus to the Parliamentary Labour Party’s ability to resist subversive pressures upon and within the Party as a whole.”
It estimated that there was Trotskyist influence in 9 CLPs in which the sitting Labour MP was at risk, and in another 67 CLPs there was some degree of Trotskyist influence. Kassimeris and Price conclude, significantly:
“For the first time, … MI5 believed that Trotskyism posed a significant danger, not only to an established political party but, since Labour was in government at the time, potentially to the British state.”
In 1976, the Home Secretary under right-wing Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, personally requested information from the Director General of MI5 concerning Trotskyist penetration into the party.
MI5 assessed the base that Militant had, and noted that the Labour bureaucracy did not seem capable of dealing with it. They noted that Militant was quite unlike any of the other far-left groups – it was a disciplined Bolshevik organisation, with a serious approach to the mass movement and to Marxist theory:
“Militant was able to develop and gain significant influence not only due to the lax disciplinary procedures in the Labour Party, but also because of the dedication of its members and its strong internal discipline—a characteristic which most other Trotskyist groups had lacked.”
The Labour government continued to push for more information, and spies were sent in to monitor Militant conferences. Famously, at one event, two agents ended up having to hide behind a partition from early morning to late evening to record the day’s discussions. According to one of those Special Branch officers:
“We crept in, into the little cubby hole at 8 o’clock in the morning with a bucket to cater for our needs, and we stayed there until all the delegates had left, after nearly 7 o’clock at night, and we recorded the proceedings on a small, Swiss high tech tape recorder provided by MI5 for us … We were that near to people standing at the back of the hall and just the width of a small, thin wooden partition, looking through a peep hole.”
Both the security services and Special Branch sent in infiltrators, sometimes unaware of each other’s presence. Around 30 informers were recruited.
This surveillance extended to the use of agents to spy on Militant supporters Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, who were elected as Labour MPs for Coventry South East and Liverpool Broadgreen respectively in 1983. Indeed, an agent was sent into Coventry Labour Party to monitor Nellist and was “instructed to ‘cultivate’ Nellist, and developed a close relationship with him, ‘helping him with a lot of things’ and ‘going around with him to a lot of meetings’.”
Proscription and the Poll Tax
The study claims that although the state continued to monitor the actions of Militant, and in particular those Militant supporters who had become Labour MPs, interest waned after the mid-1980s as Militant declined.
For some reason, the study’s authors seem to think that this was all down to Labour taking action against Militant. The tendency was officially proscribed from the party, with Kinnock making his infamous speech at the Labour conference against the Militant-led Liverpool City Council.
In fact, the Labour right wing’s attacks did not have anything like the detrimental impact on the Militant’s influence that is claimed. Militant moved on to play a leading role in the anti-poll tax campaign, which would ultimately help to bring down Thatcher.
The state was not just interested in Militant and the Labour Party, however. By the 1980s, concerns were being raised about what was happening in the civil service and its main trade union at the time, the CPSA (part of what today forms the PCS union).
The public sector had changed dramatically over the previous few decades. The bowler-hat brigade had been replaced by a new layer of employees, who were mostly much younger and from more working-class backgrounds.
As such, inevitably, people with more left-wing views now found themselves working inside the civil service.
A vetting system had always existed inside the state, mainly to stop Communist Party members and the like getting anywhere near sensitive information. But left-wing shifts inside the CPSA flagged up that the Militant could now pose a threat inside the state machine. In the words of Kassimeris and Price, this was a cause of “significant unease” for the security service.
Cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong warned a meeting of top civil servants that Militant was a threat to “the effective operation of government”.
When a strike broke out at the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) in Newcastle in 1984, MI5 demanded the department give it a report on Militant activities in the branch. It found that one-third of the union representatives who had facility time were probably Militant activists.
Another top civil servant, Sir Kenneth Stowe, warned in November 1984 that Thatcher’s policies were creating a radical mood inside the CPSA, which was undermining the old right-wing leadership.
So it was that Sir Robert Armstrong commissioned in early 1985 a full report into leftist groups inside the civil service. 284 people were identified as Militant supporters – although the real figure was believed to be higher. Again the report picked Militant for particular mention:
“Militant members were considered a greater threat than other Trotskyists in the Civil Service due to their organisational capabilities and their stronghold in some Civil Service unions. In 1986, a Militant member, John Macreadie, was elected general secretary of the CPSA.”
Armstrong reported to Thatcher that the Militant threat was serious, and that new covert procedures should be put into effect. Thatcher personally signed off on the report’s recommendations, advising senior civil servants to “be very ready to sack subversive troublemakers if they showed any cause under the Civil Service rules”.
As a result, many left-wing civil servants found themselves being moved to less sensitive positions, or were simply blocked from taking up jobs without being told why.
Power and privileges
The study concludes by emphasising that the state considered Militant to be a real threat to the status quo. They understood that Militant’s base and orientation towards the labour and trade movement made them a danger unlike any other group. In the words of Kassimeris and Price:
“Militant Tendency fundamentally changed the way in which British intelligence agencies perceived Trotskyism. For the first time in nearly half a century of investigating the Trotskyist movement, the Secret Services came to believe that a Trotskyist group had the potential to pose a significant subversive threat to Britain.
“Militant was different from other Trotskyist groups partly because it had been able to gain a significant power-base thanks to the lenient Labour Party discipline procedures which had previously prevented the far left from entering the party. Militant, unlike previous Trotskyist movements, maintained discipline and unity – a key to its success.
“… For the first time, Trotskyists were specifically targeted, under an informal ‘purge’ procedure that had long prevented Communists from working in certain Civil Service jobs.
“… MI5’s definition of subversion, adopted in 1972 was: ‘activities threatening the safety or well-being of the State and intended to undermine or overthrow Parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Militant was the first and, so far, only Trotskyist organisation that both fitted this definition and was perceived to pose a genuine threat to security.”
The long-held belief that genuine Marxist ideas could never actually pose a threat was changed forever by the progress of Militant.
Four decades on, it is tempting to treat this as just a story belonging to the history books. Militant shot itself in the foot with its ultra-left turn in 1991, and declined thereafter. Instead, the genuine ideas and methods of Marxism are today represented by Socialist Appeal, which in 1992 broke with Militant.
Yet, as the ‘spy cops’ scandal shows, the police have continued to infiltrate left groups. Both MI5 and Special Branch have not gone away. Under conditions of economic and political crisis, they will again concentrate their energies on Marxists and militant activists in the movement.
This is a warning not to be complacent. The state, in the final analysis, will always act in the interests of the ruling class. As this account shows, they will go to any length – legal or otherwise – to defend the capitalist system, and the power, privileges, and profits of those at its top.