Jill Mountford, Momentum national Steering Committee member and campaigner in Wallasey in 1987, wrote this introduction to Workers’ Liberty’s reprint of the pamphlet How to fight elections.
For a while it seemed that the front person for the anti-Corbyn challenge would be Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, near Liverpool, since 1992. That makes perfect sense. Angela Eagle’s career in politics is inseparable from, and would have been impossible without, the Labour right’s drive to marginalise the left not through political debate but suppressing party and labour movement democracy.
She was originally imposed on Wallasey CLP in shameless violation not only of members’ wishes but of the Labour Party’s own rules. 24 years later, when the Wallasey Labour rank and file has risen again and the left has won leadership of the CLP, Eagle has presided over its suspension! In 1991, before she was imposed as a candidate, Eagle received five nominations from local branches and affiliates. 24 nominations went to the candidate from 1987, Lol Duffy – who was nonetheless barred by the National Executive Committee from standing.
When a majority of those voting in the final selection cast blank ballots in protest – 163 to 57 for Eagle! – party rules said the process should have begun again. Of course, it didn’t. Lol Duffy, who was a supporter of Workers’ Liberty’s forerunner Socialist Organiser, had almost won in ‘87. This pamphlet, first published shortly afterwards and last republished in 2001, tells the tremendous story of that election.
Wallasey is now a safe Labour seat, but from its creation in 1923 until 1992 it had always been Tory, except for three years with an independent MP during World War 2. In every election in the 1950s, the Tory majority was about 15,000; in 1979 it was 5,381 and in 1983 6,708. Yet in 1987 Lol Duffy, slammed in the press as a “Marxist jailbird” (he had been to prison for leading a workplace occupation against layoffs) and “unelectable”, lost by only 279 votes. That was possible because Wallasey, suffering under Thatcherism, was changing — but also because a thoughtful and organised group of class-struggle socialists were able to unite the left, transform the local party, and inspire and galvanise the local labour movement and wide layers of the constituency’s working class.
There are surely some big lessons for today. One is that the Labour right are utterly cynical in their protestations about winning elections. In Wallasey in 1987 they very obviously and directly contributed to the party losing the seat, because they regarded the re-election of a millionaire Tory minister, Linda Chalker, as preferable to the election of a working-class socialist militant. It was a more dramatic miniature of the wider story of the 1983 and 1987 elections. Neighbouring MP Frank Field – another familiar character from today’s drama – went as far as publicly calling on people in Wallasey not to vote Labour. (Was he disciplined, targeted by the 1980s equivalent of the Compliance Unit? Of course not.)
Another lesson is about the weakness of the idea that left-wing candidates advocating left-wing policies cannot succeed electorally. We can win public support if we organise effectively and inspiringly for our policies and ideas. Between 1983 and 1987, the Labour vote in Wallasey increased by 39 per cent, as 22,512 people voted for a “Marxist jailbird” because they agreed with our demands for education, health, pensions, jobs, transport and housing, and for changing society.
Lol Duffy and the wider campaign stood resolute on the issues facing the working class at a time when the Labour machine, under Neil Kinnock, was fast moving away from the working class, in awe of Thatcherism and in an ever more desperate bid for electoral victory. Kinnock was preparing the way for Blair. Perhaps most importantly, this pamphlet shows what a distinctively socialist campaign could look like. The kind of policies, big ideas, methods and struggles promoted by the Wallasey campaign of 1986-7 go way beyond anything the bulk of the Labour left is advocating today. And, counter-intuitively perhaps for some, the campaign was able to surge against the odds precisely because its militancy and radicalism allowed it to connect to working-class people’s interests and needs.
The campaign involved trade union activists, unemployed workers, housewives and school students from run-down estates. It gathered a life and pace of its own, reflecting the inimitable spirit and aspirations of workers when they are politically conscious and roused for a fight. For a while we made socialism a living, breathing force in Wallasey.
We talked socialism on the doorsteps, in workplace canteens, outside Job Centres, at school gates, in old people’s homes and on street corners. We talked socialism, we mobilised a sizeable layer of working-class activists to talk socialism, and the working class responded. In the Labour left upsurge of today we have advantages the comrades didn’t in 1987, but – after not just two years but three decades of serious defeats, starting with the 1984-5 miners’ strike — many disadvantages too. We are starting from a lower political level; Workers’ Liberty is republishing How to fight elections as a contribution to raising that level. We want to share the experiences described in the pamphlet. We want it to be an activists’ handbook which people will read, discuss and apply in today’s fight for working-class political representation and for a workers’ government.