1 May 2012
Exeter Labour Briefing 1983-84
Exeter Labour Briefing, a magazine published by a group of mainly young people in the mid 1980s, was the first step in a socialist project in the south-west of England.
The evenings were already drawing in when in September 1981 two second-year university students huddled around a cheap radio set in their room in a shared house. Both were anxious to hear the outcome of the first item of business of the Labour Party Conference of that year: namely the election of the deputy leader of the Labour Party. For the first time in Labour Party history, instead of Labour MPs alone electing the leader and deputy, the newly created electoral college, which opened the vote to the constituency parties and trade unions, would decide the outcome. The result was read out by a party official: the right-winger, Denis Healey, had defeated Tony Benn for the position by a whisker of less than one percent of the votes. I felt the pain like a punch in the face.
Joining the Labour Party
I had joined the University Labour Club the year before and found it politically ineffective. Unusually for the early 1980s, the club was led by Labour right-wingers who harboured a bitter knee-jerk dislike of everything vaguely progressive from CND to public ownership. Their idea of student political activity was skittle matches with the Liberals and afternoon tea with the Tories. They, and there were only two or three of them, retained control of the club solely because they were unchallenged. Taking power away from this small clique proved as easy as cutting through warm butter with a knife: four or five of us organised a motion of no-confidence; they were out; and we were in. I became the club secretary.
Student politics itself was of little interest to me. However that did not mean students were of no importance: they could become political activists and articulate socialist ideas both among and outside the student body. In the autumn of 1981, the target of my interest became the Labour Party itself. Inside the University Labour Club little was known about its politics, though we knew the Exeter Party had supported Benn against Healey in the deputy leadership contest.
Joining the Party proved technically more difficult than I had imagined. From a leaflet I found the address of the HQ and went off in search of 26 Clifton Hill. Unfortunately, there was also a Clifton Road nearby to distract me and number 26 turned out to be an ordinary terraced house. In the end I wrote a letter to the address on the leaflet, and a month or so later the membership secretary of the Pennsylvania/St. Davids branch turned up at my student house. After a further wait while my membership was approved by the branch and the Exeter GMC (General Management Committee) I was given my first party card which in those days still carried a red flag rather than a red rose.
The university itself, plus much of the student and staff residential quarter of Exeter, was in the Pennsylvania/St. Davids ward of the town. For this reason the branch was one of the largest and most vocal in Exeter, although its Labour vote was amongst the lowest. The SDP faction had already left, and the branch, consisting disproportionally of university employees, was in the process of moving its meetings from the houses of a clique of middle class party members to the party headquarters in Clifton Hill. The view of the leadership of the branch was clear: the movement to the left in the past had been justified, but now it was time to stabilise and if necessary move to the right tactically, if not in principle.
My second or third branch meeting was held in the faded grandeur of the Mardon Hall of residence at the university. It was here that I made my first intervention in Labour Party politics. I agreed to second a motion calling for Labour, in the event of no party having overall control in the May 1984 municipal elections, not to form a coalition with the Liberals. The right-wing moved a successful amendment to replace the words “will not form a coalition” with “has no intention of...” And of course when the council was hung, they did indeed form not a coalition but a working arrangement with the Liberals.
As a Labour Party member, I was now able to occupy one of the two places on the GMC allotted to the University Labour Club; hitherto these seats had gone unfilled. Strangely, I had entertained the idea that the members of the GMC would sit around a table, debate matters of political importance and listen to one another. I expected local and administrative matters to be discussed, but that these issues would be tied into national political narratives. I was in for a shock: delegates sat slumped around the inside of a Nissan hut, several the worse for drink. The meeting consisted mainly of endless unstructured and often incoherent reports of what had been said at city and county council meetings and what had been going on in the branches and in the executive committee. Exchanges between delegates were mindlessly aggressive, particularly so given that it was often hard to discern any coherent political differences between the speakers. Within minutes of watching this shambles I saw the limitations of trying to promote left-wing politics there and of course I largely lost respect for Exeter Labour Party as an institution.
Nonetheless this configuration of people and of attitudes was the reality of the Labour Party in Exeter, and I was there to learn how it worked. Though there were a number of miscellaneous characters and people who straddled both sides in their sympathies, it was not hard to discern two factions. One was what we would refer to today as ‘old Labour;’ local working-class people, often connected to the trains and buses, for whom the Labour Party meant advancing the well-being and status of just that group. And second, middle class people, usually connected to education and the public sector, who were either associated with various causes (e.g. nuclear disarmament) or just saw themselves as charity workers for the less well-off. The number of people who could be classified as left-wing socialists could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
My political thinking in the early 1980s
I should now pause and sketch in the political analysis which I held in the early 1980s, which then seemed reasonable, but was later shown by events to be in part mistaken. Like everybody else at the time, and rightly so, I saw the coming into office of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party in 1979 as marking a profound shift in the direction of British society. Thatcherism, heralding in an age of market fundamentalism and re-consolidation of capitalist power, signalled the end of the years of political consensus which had prevailed in Britain since the Second World War. Monetarist policies, cuts in public expenditure, attacks on the trade unions and local councils were leading to increasing social inequality, poverty, mass unemployment and a sharpening of class conflict.
I was mistaken in believing that two, and only two, alternatives lay ahead. One possibility was that the socio-economic conditions of the early eighties would be a permanent fixture of British society, with ever increasing class and political polarisation. Or, in the alternative, the Labour Party would change itself into an instrument of socialist transformation, win office and then in a mass popular struggle abolish capitalism. Obviously, I hoped for the latter over the former and wanted to be part of the new socialist politics. But if recession Thatcherism were to be a permanent feature of life, then I would play my part in working class politics and the counter culture of the age. It never occurred to me at the time that an upswing in capitalism was possible, and that neo-liberal capitalist development would transform the working class and then propel Labour Party politics away from socialism.
The consequence of holding these views was that I regarded the majority of the existing currents of opinion in the Labour Party as irrelevant anachronisms and impediments to progress. The working-class trade union Labourites, symbolised in Exeter by Chester Long leader of railwayman’s trade union, harked back to an era when the working man was treated with privileged indulgence. Market fundamentalism and political Thatcherism would throw him and his ilk off their high horses as indeed they actually did. Equally irrelevant in this period of intensified class struggle were the middle-class social ameliorators who saw Labour as a polite pressure group for good causes. That was how I saw things at the time; and being in possession of this analysis, of course, led to the inevitability of conflict within Exeter Labour Party. And being twenty years old I was not prepared to soft peddle.
The birth of Exeter Labour Briefing
The origin of Exeter Labour Briefing came out of a very simple event which proved to me that the struggle within the Labour Party had to conducted at least in part outside its official organs. The new chairman of the branch was an affable politics lecturer from the right of the party who was regarded as somewhat politically naive. His proposal on taking the chair was the establishment of a branch newsletter, a suggestion which was unanimously adopted. Without any complaint form him, I put in a small piece arguing that the party should move leftwards. What I hadn’t predicted was the censorious reaction.
Freedom of debate was not appreciated. The reaction against my piece at the next branch meeting threw up two pseudo-arguments which would be repeated again and again by Exeter Labour Party throughout the whole Briefing saga: first, that people, in this case party members, might confuse my arguments for Labour Party policy; and second, that the existence of differences of opinion would divide and confuse. Since restrictive and illiberal policies such as this made any internal opposition in the Exeter Labour Party impossible, the only option was to establish a journal outside the Party structures. That this journal would run into problems with the Exeter Labour Party leadership was of course inevitable, however much some of the founders of Briefing wanted to avoid this outcome. Yet, the situation in Exeter was a strange one. Admittedly, throughout Britain in 1982-83 the march to the left was being halted and made to retreat, but publication bans on party members, particularly when the people involved were unassociated with Trotskyist groups, was rare, if not unknown.
In the early summer of 1983 my last university examination was behind me and I was a free man with time on my hands. In July the first issue of Exeter Labour Briefing appeared. Initially we were four: myself, a university friend, the membership secretary from our local Labour Party branch who worked as software developer and finally a teacher from the technical college. Within a few months, the other three had left Exeter, but it is worthwhile looking at the politics behind the first issue which appeared in July 1983.
Several issues had to be sorted out early on. First, it was decided that we were setting up, not a political faction, but a discussion magazine for which any Labour Party member could write. In practice, that meant little: we didn’t expect contributions from our opponents and the distinction between acting as a faction and as producers of a publication was more theoretical than real. The second issue was the name. We adopted the name Labour Briefing, not because we had any connection with the London magazine of that name, but because we wanted to talk to the Labour Party from inside the Labour Party. Later we developed a partnership with London Labour Briefing, but it was never a relationship of dependency. Thirdly, and this was the most hotly disputed issue, we had to decide whether to sell the magazine to the public or somehow restrict it to party members. The first issue published in July 1983 was theoretically limited to party members only, but later this rather limiting and unrealistic policy was abandoned.
Managing Exeter Labour Briefing on Welfare
My personal situation changed in the summer of 1983. In September, no longer a student, I moved into a bedsit and the main source of my income became welfare benefits. The outlook for Briefing appeared grim as my three associates left Exeter one by one. Yet two sources of recruitment remained. The first was the University Labour Club now under the control of three left-wing mature postgraduate students who played some role themselves, but also encouraged Club members to involve themselves in Briefing. The second was the the pool of unemployed university leavers who remained in Exeter with time on their hands. Most were angry that recession Thatcherism had robbed them of an opportunity to work and loathed the narrow-mindedness and cultural debasement of Tebbit-ridden Toryism. The Thatcher regime was only four years old and they did not believe it would entrench itself for a generation. Instead, they believed something more radical and principled than the Labour Party establishment of Denis Healey was both necessary and possible. Briefing was something local and practical to give expression to those feelings.
One immediate need of every political project then as now was funding. In those pre-internet days, it was not even possible to publish anything without access to funds for typewriters, typewriter cartridges and print shops. All required money as did the hire of rooms, usually above pubs, to hold meetings. Smaller meetings among comrades who were friends could be accommodated in bedsits.
As nobody was going to fund us, we had little choice but to finance the project ourselves. And given that nearly everyone lived from dole money or on a student grant, the task was not easy. I purchased a small brown paper cash book, which soon became known as the "shit-coloured book," and gave everyone a page. It was basically a means of taxation: each Briefing supporter was given a weekly sum based on his or her income, ranging from some thirty pence to two pounds. Throughout the week I did the rounds to bring in the money and deposited it in our account at the Cooperative Bank on the High Street.
Initially I had thought that my taxation rounds would prove unpopular, but the opposite turned out to be the case. The politically induced recession of the early eighties hadn’t just cut through England’s manufacturing north, but had also sharply diminished the number of graduate employment opportunities across the land. There was thus an inflated pool of discontented educated youth who were either unemployed or on the verge of it. Market fundamentalism as an ideology was far from entrenched and many believed in the possibility of change. Briefing, based on the educated young, had a strong minority appeal, and more people than I had thought possible wanted to discuss politics with me and hand over small quantities of money.
The biggest difficulty was not tapping into the pool of support but activating it into participation in Exeter Labour Party. The whole ambiance of the Labour Party in Exeter was undoubtedly depressing and made worse by the barrage of insults that met the young who did participate. Among the most vindictive was that coined, or at least most often deployed, by the Exeter party’s only employee, Dorothy Parker, that “these are just transitory people” - with the implication that the young and unemployed constituted some sort of Untermensch. The reaction tended to produce one of two responses: the young person wanted nothing further to do with Exeter Labour Party - and many in the party were happy with that result. Or a relationship of hate developed and he or she threw everything into Briefing. That latter reaction was the basis of our strength.
Poverty of itself does not produce virtue; and only discipline and a sense of purpose can overcome the debilitating effects of the cold in winter, poor diet and exclusion from much of normal life. Why I was motivated enough to put in fourteen-hour days to what amounted to voluntary work remains a mystery to me even a quarter of a century later. At around ten my typical day started with a journey to Exeter University Library. Though I was no longer a student, I had no practical difficulty in getting in and was able to continue my studies in academic Marxism and much else in peace. In the late afternoon I visited comrades around the town raising funds, collecting articles and selling the publication; and most evenings there were meetings: of the Labour Party, Briefing itself or of associated groups, e.g. CND. For some reason the massive job of assembling Briefing for the press was always done through the night.
My own control of my limited money was crucial to my survival. My normal social security income was some twenty-seven pounds a week. I budgeted for two pounds a day with nearly all of that being spent on food, mostly vegetables and bread - and on those days when I had the money, a small piece of cheese and a chocolate bar. I spent nothing on heating or travel: I walked or hitched. Curiously enough I never bought second-hand clothes, so they were either in tatters or very occasionally new. The remainder was spent on political activity or saved.
Among us there was a camaraderie, mostly male, but not exclusively so. The women were either in relationships or more often were the partners of male activists. One girl, though, remained singularly aloof from the crowd. When and how she joined Briefing now escapes my memory. She lived alone in the most spartan of bedsits; her bed, covered with rags, took up most of the tiny room and on a small scratched and stained chest-of-drawers was some bread and a piece of cheese. She was different from the rest of us: she had been privately educated and was only eighteen years old. Seen as taciturn and as hard as nails, she fitted in with difficulty; and were I not entrusted with collecting her subs, I too might have passed her by. Yet sitting next to her that day on her bed, for there were no chairs in the room, I sensed that behind her intense penetrating green eyes, a gentleness.
A clear choice faced me: either try to learn something about her or else take the money and simply leave. I chose to listen to her and slowly she opened up. She had found the company of her overbearing mother intolerable and had chosen instead the poverty of bedsit land. Entitled to next to nothing on social welfare, she lived a hand-to-mouth existence utterly and completely alone. I too was alone. My arms went round her thin body and I kissed her. Her eyes continued to stare unmoved with a depth of pain that I could not reach. We moved apart and continued to talk, cordially and even in friendship, but with no intimacy.
Opinions within Exeter Labour Briefing
Briefing was never a monolithic body of people. Differences ran through the group: militant reformism commanded a majority, but there were attachments to other sets of ideas too. I will consider the three most important here: radical feminism, Trotskyism and anarchism.
Briefing had been set up by men, and it was unlikely in that age and in that milieu that women would have started the project. Nonetheless a significant minority of Briefing supporters were female, though they were never numerous enough to take control of the Exeter Labour Party’s women’s council even when it lay there for the taking. Most of the female supporters described themselves as feminists and most of the men supported them in most of their demands. Yet there was a clear dividing line between what can be defined as socialist feminism and fundamentalist feminism. The former focused on those processes in society, the Labour party and Briefing itself which discriminated against women. So in the spirit of the time, language was changed so as not to carry sexist connotations, thus the chairman was always a chairperson. Positive discrimination to boost the representation of women in leading positions was also supported; and the principle of the separate organisation of women, in addition to their general participation, was also endorsed. For the early 1980s Briefing was undoubtedly more progressive on feminist issues than the Exeter Labour Party, a situation which was unanimously applauded within the Briefing group.
A minority though was influenced by a fundamentalist feminism which saw the source of female disadvantage not in society in the fist instance, but in the sexuality of men. Male sexuality, the act of penetration in particular, was responsible for creating patriarchal power structures, detrimental to the interests of women. At its most extreme the organised political meeting and reasoned argument were seen as patriarchal inventions which should be abolished. This kind of dysfunctional political nihilism had much in common with the anarchism which I discuss below.
Trotskyism, curiously enough, did not impinge much on Briefing. In its manifestation in 1980s Britain, Trotskyism was associated with small groups of people, predominantly male, who shared a political analysis which all members of the group were required to propagate. Though Trotskyist groups differed on whether to participate in the Labour Party, and if they did for what purpose, they all maintained three unshakable positions: first the imposition of political uniformity on their members (democratic centralism); second, that only a disciplined party like themselves could lead the working class to socialism; and third, that the transition to socialism would require the forceful overthrow of the existing regime in Britain. These almost apocalyptic and religious-like views made them incomprehensible to most inside Exeter Labour Party, making them an exotic irrelevance.
Two Trotskyite groups had a marginal influence in Exeter. Inside the Labour party there were a handful of Militant Tendency supporters who might well have been the target for disciplinary action, had it not been for the presence of Briefing. We had very little dealings with this moronic collection of people, except in the sense that from time to time we found ourselves voting the same way. A branch of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party also existed in Exeter; for the most part they were concerned with their own internal debates, though later several of the activists in the WRP joined the Briefing group, but not the Labour Party. Trotskyism at best provided people with whom we could discuss politics and were important in that sense; or at worst they were irrelevant to everything that Briefing was doing.
At least Trotskyism, even if its adepts worked towards a totally unrealistic political agenda, could, in so far as they were involved the Labour Party, work to bolster the position of the left. That could not be said of the anarchist contingent who saw politics entirely differently. The guiding thread of many anarchists in Exeter was that the correct response to recession Thatcherism was to undermine, and if possible destroy, all political organisations by actions which were often illegal and usually anti-social. The only freedom worth having in their view was within a space created outside the law and routines of established society; decisions inside this disorderly collection of people were theoretically made by consensus in informal structures, but were in fact the dictats of a few charismatic and seemingly mentally ill people.
As a serious political programme ideas of this kind were an utter nonsense. However more than radical feminism or Trotskyism, anarchist sentiments were problematic for Briefing for two reasons. First a few of Exeter’s anarchists involved themselves in the Labour Party for a short while, but far more dangerously many anarchist ideas had a resonance inside the Briefing group among otherwise intelligent people.
Briefing’s association with anarchism acquired farcical dimensions in the so-called ceremonial chair incident. An ornate wooden ceremonial chair (The Freddie Tarr chair) adorned the main committee room at Clifton Hill and its allusion to authority had angered some of the Young Socialists who met once a month in the room. We were one of the few branches of the Young Socialists in those years not controlled by the Trotskyite Militant Tendency. The branch supported Briefing and sent two Briefing supporters to the GMC; I was chairman of Young Socialists but avoided sitting in the ceremonial chair.
After one meeting I was asked by a couple of people on the periphery of Briefing for the key to room as, they claimed, a pullover had been left in the room. Only after the key had been handed back did I realise something didn’t ring true. On returning to the meeting room I discovered that the chair had been removed.
My first thought was to separate myself and Briefing people from this incident. Quite obviously an expulsion from the party based on theft of party property would rest on sound ground; and indeed getting us expelled was precisely what the anarchists wished to bring about. I immediately reported the incident to the party leadership, who in turn notified the police. Although I refused to answer any police questions, I was nonetheless branded by the anarchists, and to some extent by the their sympathisers inside the Briefing group, as a police informer and scab. Though these attacks left me somewhat vulnerable for a while, in the end result was positive as clear water was created between us and the anarchist contingent.
Matters took an even more absurd development as it then turned out that the whole theft had been witnessed by a right-wing member of the General Management Committee. Immediately opposite the Labour Party headquarters in Clifton Hill was a town park. Unknown to me the park was a meeting place for gay men, and apparently this party member had been in a bush when the chair was unceremoniously dragged into the park before being taken away in a van. What actually happened to the chair is not clear; several anecdotal accounts speak of it being religiously burnt by the anarchist fraternity.
The incident ended with me being summoned to the Executive Committee, but on this occasion I was on the leadership’s side. Strangely, the committee members did not see the theft of the chair as seriously as I did. In my petty-bourgeois thinking the mindless theft and destruction of the property of another was an unforgivable sin, even if it belonged to Exeter Labour Party. For many on the executive it was a piece of horseplay. Perhaps they hated me so much that they even started to identify with the anarchists.
It is a tribute to both both Briefing and Exeter Labour Party that in the whole conflict not a single punch was ever thrown. Yet the hatred was such that violence always lay suppressed just below the surface. One associate of Briefing, who involved himself in the group but not in the Exeter Party on the grounds that he was active in another constituency Labour Party, once approached me with a novel proposition. He offered, if I thought it helpful, to put one particular member of the Exeter Labour Party in hospital for a while. He was not joking because I had witnessed his tactics being used elsewhere and I hated them, not just on the grounds of a moral prohibition against initiating violence, but in a belief that the end doesn’t so much justify the means, rather the end becomes contaminated by a rotten means. Declining his offer was not so much a self-sacrifice, but done in recognition that, even if I had supported violence, I could never have carried a majority of Briefing with me. Had our opponents ever used violence against us, no doubt the situation would have changed, but fortunately they never did.
The open structure of Briefing meant that these different strands of opinion discussed above could easily be accommodated. I never even thought of censoring different views but supported their articulation into articles in Briefing. In any event we could always out-write them. Typing and compiling Briefing was hard work and it tended to fall to me and a couple of other people to do the work. Most Briefing meetings were discussion groups which aired views but did not have to reach decisions. The only Briefing meetings which did have to come to clear conclusions were the pre-meeting meetings. These need explaining.
Working inside Exeter Labour Party
Soon after Briefing grew from a couple of people, it became obvious that some form of Briefing pre-meeting was required before branch and GMC meetings. Many Briefing supporters were young and politically inexperienced, so the bullying and bureaucratic procedures of the Labour Party were baffling and intimidating. Several functions were served by meeting up in a pub beforehand. We could discuss the issues and structure of the meeting on our own first, so people didn’t go in blind. We could check that everybody was there; a pre-meeting drink was quite an incentive to turn up. Also we could distribute our interventions in the meeting between us. As there were always some neutrals in meeting, we found it helpful not to be so obviously functioning as a group because individual arguments, rather than group chorus, were more effective in bringing neutrals over to our point of view.
As an organised force Briefing hit raw nerves in Exeter Labour Party and violated their comfort zones. Anger against us intensified as time went on. The intention of the right-wing was simple stop Briefing from publishing and/or rid the party of these irritating new young activists. In the early summer of 1984 the GMC asked the Executive to investigate Briefing and I and a third year university student were ‘summoned’ to the Executive Committee. Ours were two of the named editors of the magazine; the others had already left Exeter. The main accusation against us was that Exeter Labour Briefing could be confused as a Labour Party publication.
The official charge against us was plain silly. But when an organisation has insisted on an ‘official truth,’ the more absurd the belief, the more it is clung to. The truth was that not even a moron in hurry could have muddled Exeter Labour Briefing with an official Labour Party publication; it carried no Labour Party emblem and it spoke to not for the Labour Party. Yet, this absurd accusation also provided an escape route for us if we wanted it: if the name were changed, then the leadership of Exeter Labour Party would surely have no objection to it. And that was precisely what happened: we changed the name to Devon Labour Briefing.
The compromise of changing the name divided the leadership of Exeter Labour Party. One group led by Chester Long shouted loudly that the name was the never the issue, but it had only been adopted as a stick to beat us with. He wanted to proceed with expulsion whether we changed the name or not. A majority, though, were unhappy to take the heavy step of expulsion and saw the expulsion threat as an attempt to silence us, not take away our party cards. Long’s hand was also weakened by something else. While the issue was dragging on, Tony Benn from the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party had written to the leaders in Exeter stating with certainty that in his opinion were Exeter to proceed with an expulsion the national party would overturn it. And indeed in 1984 they would have done.
Changing the name also divided Briefing. Some argued, wrongly as it turned out, that defusing the conflict by changing the name would bring on board much of the supposed centre ground of the party. Others, including myself, felt we would avoid expulsion even if we kept the same name and if the dispute went up to London our profile would be enhanced. At the end of a packed sardine-can bedsit meeting, two decisions were made. One was to change the name of the publication to Devon Labour Briefing. The other was an obscure issue: to change the editorial from issue to issue rather than repeatedly reprinting the same political statement. On both issues I was part of the minority.
On that note Exeter Labour Briefing came to an end in the summer of 1984, merely a year after its launch. Altogether, it produced a mere five cheaply printed issues, but brought into existence a movement of people in one town in the south-west of England. Within the decade, Briefing in Exeter would fail and disappear, but first reincarnated as Devon Labour Briefing it would experience expansion beyond students and the young unemployed. It would contain more pages, involve more activists and have more money; two more expulsion attempts would be launched against its editors and writers. Yet the core of its political analysis would remain fundamentally unchanged as it first expanded and then fell apart.