A Life In Labour - My History
I joined the Labour Party in February 1972. Newer comrades might like to know what the Labour Party was like then.
Remember first that we were still living in the overhang of two World Wars.
In 1972 any male comrade over 73 had probably served in World War I. Everyone over 65 knew friends, relations and neighbours who had died. In 1972 anyone over forty had vivid memories of World War 2. National Service (conscription) had only ended in 1960 with the last entrants leaving in 1963.
In 1968 the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia. People of my age were being killed trying to flee from East Germany. They were being killed by conscripts of my age.
I visited Czechoslovakia in 1972 to check on the welfare of a Czech woman who had decided to go back.
I was there on the anniversary of the Russian invasion. Many Czechs were drunk.
When we returned to the family I was staying with, the father of the family turned from the TV.
“Soldiers have killed 13 people!”
“No. In Ireland!”
That was the Bloody Sunday massacre. Northern Ireland was a terrible situation that affected everyone of Irish origin. I knew people injured by IRA bombs in the UK.
There was racism everywhere. I first met racism at sixth form college. It is still with us.
I have criticisms of the SWP but they deserve the credit for the Anti Nazi League (ANL). I was on the huge ANL Nazi League march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, a distance of about five miles. I was about twenty minutes out from Trafalgar Square when the radio announced that the head of the procession was at Victoria Park and there were still people assembling in Trafalgar Square.
Oppression of women was endemic. The Dagenham strike for equal pay in 1968 was resonating throughout the Labour movement. There were impressive women like Barbara Castle and Betty Boothroyd. But the reality for many women was domestic violence, unequal pay, and lack of opportunity. Many male comrades were good but too many were not.
Homosexuality had only been made legal in 1968. It was definitely not a good time to be gay.
In safe Labour areas the Labour Party was generally fairly small. One could join the Labour Party but there was no feeling that you were needed. The function of the branch was to ensure that the Labour councillors were re-elected. The function of the CLP was to make sure the Labour MP was re-elected. There was no point in canvassing because you would be canvassing Heaven. If you were keen you could distribute the election leaflet.
Deselections could take place, but given that the three councillors and their friends and family usually had a huge majority at branch meetings deselection would only happen when there were personal issues. Labour meetings were often astonishingly unpolitical.
One could put up political resolutions.
Labour Weekly published an account of a young disabled woman who joined the Labour Party in 1974. At her first meeting she put forward a motion saying that discrimination against the disabled was wrong and there should be a law against it. That motion was passed by the branch, the Constituency Labour Party, and by Annual Conference. The Disability Discrimination Act of 1975 was a direct result of that young woman’s motion at a branch meeting.
People coming into the constituency were a matter of concern in the small branches. Were we going to stir up trouble?
The unions ran the Labour Party. Almost every safe Labour seat was funded and organised by a trade union. A few good unions also put money and support into the marginal seats that we needed to win a majority in Parliament.
Membership applications were accepted by the CLP rather than by the national party. Quite often a person seeking to join a CLP would be told that their application to join this CLP could not be processed until s/he had joined a trade union. Barristers and self employed joined ASTMS or ACTSS. Suspected Trots were sometimes told that the party was full.
There was corruption in safe Labour areas. This was the time of T. Dan Smith and Andrew Cunningham. Almost worse than the corruption was the apparent muppetry of so many Labour councillors. The trade union concept of solidarity and united front had tended to become “don’t rock the boat”.
Apart from the branch meetings everything worked on delegateships. Each branch could nominate delegates to the CLP. I cannot now remember if it was one place for every eight members or one for every ten. In those days when many people did not have cars and CLP meetings were boring it was not difficult to become a delegate.
Our leaders were giants. Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, and in the second rank Antony Crosland, Richard Crossman (whom I hated), Anthony Wedgewood Benn, and Roy Jenkins.
Our technology was close to zilch. I remember at University being impressed by a young comrade who had bought himself a typewriter. There were no satnavs, no mobile phones, no emails, no web sites, no personal computers, and no fax machines. Communication was by letter, leaflet, and land line telephone. There was no telephone canvassing because it was too expensive.
Canvassing was not the finely tuned voter identification we use now. It was “Can we rely on your support” with responses “Yes” “Doubtful” or “No”.
We all used the Reading System because there was nothing else. We always “manned” (the terminology of the time) the polling stations.
In the marginals and the Tory areas the Labour Party was much more active.
Would I go back? Yes I would go back to my twenties. I think the new technology and the Corbyn resurgence is the best chance of a socialist Labour Government that I am ever likely to see.