Political cultures and the Far Left in the 1970s and 1980s

Session Abstract : Recent developments in the Labour Party have brought fresh interest in the Far Left and its influence on Britain’s political culture, just as Brexit also seemed to expose the fragility of social democracy’s hold over its supposed “traditional heartlands”. Seizing that moment, this panel will discuss groups and individuals from various traditions outside the historical mainstream, asking how they contributed to Britain’s political culture and on what terms. Looking at radical activists in different spaces – some relatively self-contained like the university and the factory; others more diffuse like the community and the solidarity network – panellists will consider what enabled and constrained the influence of these political minorities.

How permeable were existing political communities like trade union branches, constituency labour parties, activist groups and communities to activists from the far left? Did existing cultural norms and values make it impossible for radical organisations to gain an audience or were they able to adapt ideas and practices and win conditional access? To what extent were the far left successful in making their own networks of solidarity in this period and how did they go about doing so?

Each of the contributors to this panel tackles these questions in innovative ways. Historical geographer Diarmaid Kelliher looks at how activists forged solidarity networks to bridge divides related to space and identity, evaluating attempts to re-make and extend class politics during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Daisy Payling examines how the far left influenced local governance and the ways in which institutions and activists re-shaped one another in the municipal politics of 1980s Sheffield. Jack Saunders discusses the extent and limits to Trotskyist influence within one Coventry car factory. Finally, Jodi Burkett explores the role of the far left on university campuses. Matthew Worley will chair the panel, connecting these themes of political cultures, space and marginality with his own insights on the far left and culture.

Session Chair: Matthew Worley, Uni of Reading

Paper 1 Abstract :  “How would you put this in the hands of the people?”: Producing socialist theatre on housing estates in 1980s Sheffield.

Daisy Payling, LSHTM

In May 1980, David Blunkett, in one of his first interviews as leader of Sheffield City Council, told the Sheffield Star that the Council was going to ‘rely on people in the community – the trade unions, the district Labour Party, tenants’ groups – to help identify the worst effects of Government policy and to suggest ways of overcoming them.’ Blunkett viewed council tenants as an integral arm of Sheffield’s ‘local socialism’ and called on community workers to ‘educate, agitate, and organise’ on council estates throughout the 1980s: expecting tenants to support campaigns against council house sales, rate-capping, and the poll tax.

Blunkett was not alone in viewing housing estates and tenants’ associations as potential hubs of grassroots activism. Bill McDonnell, who set up Sheffield Popular Theatre in the early 1980s and later developed Theatreworks: a socialist theatre group, described Sheffield’s tenants’ associations as ‘almost like little soviets… very natural units of organisation and mobilisation.’ Through Theatreworks, McDonnell used theatre as a political tool for consciousness-raising and education. He worked with tenants’ associations, workshopping political issues to produce short sketches which were performed at the start of meetings and at fundraisers. Working on the principle that ‘if you have the problem, then you should make the theatre, and the theatre should serve the campaign,’ McDonnell aimed to radicalise tenants’ associations by using theatre to highlight the politics of everyday situations.

This paper uses archival material on Theatreworks and oral history interviews with housing activists and members of the Manor Estate to explore how radical activists worked with existing social and political organisations and how these overtures were met by members of those groups. It doing so it examines how far left politics attempted to engage ‘the people’ in the 1980s, and pulls at the entwined strands of Council, activist, and constituent that made up the political culture of Sheffield’s ‘local socialism.’

Paper 2 Abstract : Networks of solidarity: The London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike

Diarmaid Kelliher, Uni of Glasgow

Alongside the 1984-5 British miners’ strike developed a large and diverse support campaign. This paper focuses on the role of London’s radical left in that movement, emphasising how activists constructed solidarity networks between London and coal mining areas. Rather than discussing the slogans and analyses produced by the leadership of small parties, I focus instead on the practical ways in which activists supported the strike and developed connections between the capital and the coalfields. Far left activists in London provided accommodation to miners fundraising in the capital, introduced them to shop stewards in their area, and helped organise ‘twinning’ relationships between support groups and pits. I show how they brought the strike into Londoners’ homes, workplaces, student unions and community centres. I argue that paying attention to the physical spaces in which solidarity was enacted highlights how political movements can be simultaneously rooted in localities and able to construct relationships across space.

I argue in this paper for a comparatively fluid understanding of the far left. Alongside the activity of members of the Communist Party and Trotskyist groups, this paper discusses feminist, black, and lesbian and gay support groups, highlighting how the miners’ industrial struggle resonated and was politicised in diverse ways. The paper also shows how radical left Labour members and local councils sought to blur the distinction between institutional and extra-parliamentary activism through their support for the strike. This complex support movement therefore challenged the boundaries of the radical left and class politics, reflecting a broader period of flux and realignment. While this was in many ways a productive process, I nevertheless suggest that the miners’ strike solidarity campaign also highlighted and exacerbated divisions within the left in the mid-1980s.

Paper 3 Abstract : Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: Students and the Far Left on English University campuses c.1970-1990

Jodi Burkett, Uni of Portsmouth

Throughout the post-war period far left groups have had a strong presence on University campuses across the UK. During the student uprisings of the late 1960s these far left groups were often blamed by the media and University governors for inciting otherwise apathetic students to protest. While the extent to which this reflected the true nature of student activism in this period is highly questionable, the role and importance of far left groups, particularly the International Socialist/Socialist Workers Party, in spurring student protest activity continues to be widely assumed.

This paper focuses on the period after 1968 as one of particular importance for student politics in England. In 1969 the National Union of Students (NUS) amended their constitution to enable them to take policies and decisions on a wide range of issues beyond those that specifically affected students because they were students. This opened up a period of increased student activity and involvement in wider community and national campaigns. This paper examines student politics within and beyond the NUS in this period. It explores the role of the far left on English University campuses, their interactions with, and influence upon, student activists during the 1970s and 1980s.

Paper 4 Abstract: “The Merits of Brother Worth”: The International Socialists and everyday life in a Coventry car factory 1968-1975

Jack Saunders, Uni of Warwick

Between 1968 and 1975, members of the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League, the International Socialists and the Militant Tendency held senior positions in factory union organisations at British Leyland factories in Birmingham, Solihull, and at Chrysler in Linwood and Coventry. This paper uses shop steward documents at Chrysler’s engine factory in Stoke Aldermoor (Coventry), where the IS had a few dozen members, including Deputy Works Convenor John Worth.

It looks at how politics affected IS members’ participation in everyday workplace life and what this tells us about political cultures within British factories in this period. Crucially, rather than looking at their contribution to shop-floor activism as an attempt to “import” ideas from outside the factory, I will look at how radical militants were often politicised in ways that reflected feelings with wider resonance amongst their co-workers. The presence of an IS fraction within the plant contributed to the changing politics and social practices of the wider trade union movement within the factory, but was ultimately constrained by the constraints of working solely within the issues which the workforce defined as legitimately “industrial”.