Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

The WRP’s ultra-left turn

198. In July 1975, the WRP called an emergency conference to adopt a Political Committee statement calling on the working class to bring down the Wilson government. As the International Committee later wrote, this policy was so far removed from the actual development of the working class that it could not be explained as simply a political error:

“The resolution signified a fundamental programmatic break with the proletarian orientation for which the British Trotskyists had fought for decades. To call for the bringing down of a Labour government, under conditions in which the revolutionary party had not yet won the allegiance of any significant section of the working class and in which the only alternative to Labour was a Tory government which the working class had brought down little more than a year before, was the height of adventurism. At the very point when the Labour Party was being compelled to turn openly against the working class, creating conditions for a powerful intervention within its mass organisations, the WRP presented an impossible ultimatum. At a very early stage of this confrontation, the WRP proposed to pre-empt the struggle within the working class organisations with a campaign that would place the fate of the Labour Party in the hands of the national electorate.”[1]

199. While the WRP’s condemnation of Labour was able to find some support amongst politically untrained workers and youth hostile to reformism, it was a disturbing expression of the class shift that had taken place within the party leadership. With the party having lost an important section of its working class base, Healy had been forced to rely ever more on those artists he had recruited in the late 1960s, such as Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, along with a number of journalists, such as Alex Mitchell, to sustain his efforts to “build the party”. In place of systematic work to educate and train these forces through an apprenticeship in the class struggle, they were rapidly elevated into the central leadership of the WRP and thrust into practical activity associated with maintaining and funding a daily paper. This was to provide a contributory political impulse to the watering down of the Trotskyist identity of the party, which found expression in the transformation of the Workers Press into the more “popular” and politically centrist News Line in May 1976.

200. In the same year, the WRP began cultivating relations with national movements and bourgeois regimes in the Middle East. From the signing of a commercial agreement with the Libyan government, behind the backs of the International Committee, Healy sought access to the funds required to resolve the party’s financial problems and provide a short-cut to political influence. This orientation was to culminate in a wholesale repudiation of the Theory of Permanent Revolution.

201. In Britain, the abandonment of the struggle to unmask the Labour and trade union bureaucracy, and the “lefts” in particular, came just as the conflict between the Wilson government and the working class, which the WRP had anticipated, began to unfold. Labour’s offensive was presaged by a state attack on the WRP. During a House of Lords debate on February 26, 1975, on the threat of “subversion and extremism,” the Earl of Kimberley stated that the WRP was “by far the most dangerous of the Trotskyist organisations in this country. It is larger, better organised, and, from the point of view of industrial agitation, more intelligently led than its rivals.”[2] Taking this cue, Labour’s Home Secretary Roy Jenkins authorised a Special Branch raid on the WRP’s College of Marxist Education in September, using the pretext of a defamatory article in the Observer newspaper.

202. The WRP responded to the police raid with an energetic defence campaign, which won widespread support in the working class, forcing the state to retreat. This could not, however, compensate for the party’s turn away from the proletarian orientation that had hitherto characterised its work. Its ultimatist political line meant that it was nowhere near the struggles that were to emerge within the Labour Party and the trade unions against the government’s openly rightward shift.

203. Events, as they unfolded in 1976, had the character of an exercise in political engineering, involving the IMF, leading sections of British industry and the City of London, with the collaboration of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy. In April, after a campaign of destabilisation by the security services, Wilson resigned and was replaced as prime minister by James Callaghan. With the economy mired in recession, Labour’s new leader accepted IMF dictates that it take on the working class through spending cuts and pay restraint. Callaghan told the Labour Party conference that year, “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.”

204. In March 1977, Callaghan entered a pact with the Liberal Party in order to remain in office against a gathering strike movement. The Labour “lefts” and the trade unions were vital in keeping Callaghan’s administration going. As energy secretary, Tony Benn refused to mount a political struggle against the right wing, and had in place emergency legislation, including for the deployment of the army, for use during a strike by oil tanker drivers. Industrial action by one-and-a-half million public sector workers during the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79 paralysed the country. But without an alternative socialist perspective and leadership, it was the Tories that were able to exploit from the right the frustration and disillusionment of the middle class—culminating in the election of Margaret Thatcher in March 1979.


How the WRP betrayed Trotskyism (Summer 1986), Fourth International, Labor Publications, Volume 13, No. 1, p. 26.