The response of the WRP leaders to the Tory victory was to begin a steady political forced march to the right, which was to culminate in the most vile adaptation to the reformists in the Labour Party. This shift found its first clear-cut manifestation in the open support given by the WRP to the betrayal of the three-month steel workers’ strike by the ISTC bureaucracy and its right-wing leader, Bill Sirs.
The strike began early in January 1980, and initially the WRP campaigned for the mobilization of the trade unions in general strike action against the Tory attack on jobs. It took a critical attitude toward the Sirs leadership. In a front page statement that appeared on January 18, 1980, the News Line stated that “Sirs and his fellow TUC bureaucrats have done everything possible to avoid the political implications of this confrontation and confine the strike to purely trade union and wages issues...
“The trade union leaders are terrified of the confrontation building up with the Tories and the capitalist state because they know that a general strike will immediately bring forward the question of state power.
“This is the central question in the steel strike, which no amount of reformist compromise and bureaucratic maneuver can resolve. Throughout the strike, Sirs has done all he can to prevent it from spreading and keep his members tied simply to the demand for higher wages.”
Ten days later, the News Line published a statement by the All Trades Unions Alliance (industrial arm of the WRP) which bitterly denounced the ISTC leader: “Sirs has since boasted to the Tory press that he and Chappie ‘prevented’ moves towards a general strike,,,” (January 28,1980)
On January 29, 1980, the News Line combined an attack on Sirs with a denunciation of another prominent union leader: “Or consider the politics of Arthur Scargill, the A.J. Cooke of the 1980s, who insists on presenting the steel strike as a wage struggle against the Tories, as it was for him in 1974. Scargill makes only muted demands on the TUC leaders, whose responsibility is to mobilize the trade union movement in defense of jobs, wages and basic rights, but who consciously betrayed the firemen’s strike of 1977/78.”
After this statement, there was a mysterious change in the political tone of the News Line. For the next month, there was no criticism of Sirs despite the fact that he continued to oppose the mobilization of the working class behind the steel workers in a struggle against the Tory government. The new emphasis in the News Line was on the danger of Tory violence. In a major statement of the Political Committee, published on February 25, 1980, entitled “Unite Against Tory Violence,” none of the previous criticisms which had been made of Sirs during the first weeks of the strike were repeated. A lenthy editorial board statement, which appeared on March 1, 1980, also made no criticism of the ISTC leadership. Sirs was not even mentioned by name.
Finally, on March 6, 1980 the News Line reported in a very mildly critical tone that there was a danger that steel union leaders were pulling back. The next day there was some muted criticism of a separation of the wages and jobs issue.
The issue of March 8, 1980 carried a full page ad, purchased by the ISTC, congratulating the News Line for “its thorough and honest coverage.”
As the strike continued throughout the month of March, support continued to build up within the working class behind the steel workers, especially among Liverpool dockers. But the News Line’s coverage remained virtually uncritical toward the ISTC leadership, offering nothing more than an occasional rebuke—such as the comment which appeared in the issue of March 14, 1980, which noted in a single sentence: “Sirs will not call publicly on the TUC leaders to act.”
On March 31, 1980 the Sirs leadership decisively betrayed the strike, accepting a miserable wage settlement and going along with Tory proposals that guaranteed the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs in the steel industry. The ISTC bureaucracy agreed to collaborate with the British Steel Corporation in speed-up and cost-cutting measures that were to have a devastating impact throughout the industry. The terms of the agreement were widely known almost immediately.
Sirs accepted Clause 4(3) which agreed to “reduce inbuilt overmanning through job restructuring,” and clause 4(4) which promised an examination of “areas of activities which are excess to requirements.” Clause 4(6) opened the door to the loss of the guaranteed work week, and Clause 5(4)b stated that outside factors such as further slump in steel demand must be taken into consideration.
The first reaction within the WRP leadership appeared to be one of shock at the nakedness of the betrayal, and an attempt was made to save face with the steel workers who were publicly denouncing the settlement. The News Line of April 2, 1980 called the ISTC-BSC agreement a sell-out, and in the next day’s issue a lead article by Alex Mitchell, entitled “Anger at Steel Return,” noted that the wage settlement didn’t even cover the rate of inflation.
Healy, however, took violent exception to this attack on the ISTC bureaucracy, which only a few weeks before had expressed its appreciation to the News Line’s uncritical coverage of its role in preparing the betrayal of the strike. The News Line, like other national newspapers, did not appear on April 4, 1980. Healy put this one-day holiday to good use by carrying through a decisive change in the policy of the WRP. When the newspaper reappeared on Saturday, April 5, 1980, a front-page Political Committee statement announced a decisive shift in the evaluation of the strike. Mitchell’s brief sling with trade union militancy came to a screeching halt. Now, the News Line produced a sickening defense of Sirs’s betrayal:
“After three months of grueling strike action the steelworkers had taken the purely wages struggle as far as they could, and there was not a penny more.
“They returned to work to meet the next phase of the Tory threat—the attack on 50,000 jobs...
“It was the TUC leaders on the General Council who betrayed the steelmen’s strike, not the leaders of the ISTC. Bill Sirs does not claim to be a revolutionary or anything like it
“The revisionists led by the political windbags and ranters of the misnamed ‘Socialist Workers Party’ have a front-page headline this week saying ‘Sell-out’ (Socialist Worker, April 5,1980)
“Those who are trying to blackguard Bill Sirs are deliberately confusing the issue. Whether they like it or not, they are covering for the real backstabbers of the steel strike—the TUC leaders.”
This type of wretched sophistry had previously been confined to the newspapers published by the Stalinists, who specialized in providing excuses for those who betrayed the working class and denouncing those who criticized the traitors. Now, this counter-revolutionary contraband was being smuggled into the News Line by Healy.