From syndicalism to parliamentary cretinism: the case of Eric Heffer
We will begin our look at Heffer’s political evolution with what is struggle in the Communist Party in 1947. Heffer was a delegate from the Welwyn Garden City branch to the 1947 Congress of the Communist Party. He was a member of an opposition which had developed in his area against Stalinist policies. As he wrote himself in a letter to the July-August 1957 Labour Review:
This opposition was composed of both intellectuals and workers. I am a joiner; other comrades were, for example, electricians and engineers, while some (a minority) were graduates from Oxford.
Immediately following the Congress, Heffer and a number of others were expelled from the Communist Party. Welwyn Garden City branch was disbanded and the neighbouring branch at Hertford was ‘reorganised’.
Eric Heffer appeared in Liverpool in the early 1950s. His subsequent course was determined by his refusal to subordinate himself to the revolutionary discipline necessary to lead the working class. In this period he called himself an ‘independent Marxist’ — i.e. independent of the revolutionary party and revolutionary discipline. He sought for theoretical justification in Rosa Luxemburg.
He was a joiner, well-known in the building trade in ship repair and with a reputation as a militant. For the greater part of the decade, together with a handful of other syndicalists and sectarian ultra-lefts, he was a member of the anti-parliamentarian group known as the Socialist Workers’ Federation. They published a small paper called first Revolt, and then, later Socialist Revolt, ‘The Strike is Mightier than the Vote’ reads the main headline in Revolt issue number 5. Already, in number two, Eric S. Heffer had written the leading article entitled ‘Workers Power: which way forward?’
But thinking and acting as revolutionaries did not mean building the necessary revolutionary organisation. Later, in the Socialist Revolt dated October-December 1956 we find Eric S. Heffer attempting to answer the question ‘What kind of Party?’ His article told us: ‘The myth inherent in Bolshevist organisation was developed to a high degree by Trotsky and used with great ability by Stalin…Trotsky’s crimes were not that he was an “imperialist agent”, (that is nonsense) but that he helped to develop the weapons that Stalin used.’ The final sentence in the article reads: ‘In rejecting the centralised party we do not reject revolutionary Marxism but in fact apply it to British conditions and according to British working class traditions.’
To this picture of Heffer it must be added that in these months
In 1960 Heffer proved his worth to the Establishment and to the reformist bureaucracy. In the seamen’s strike of that year, together with Simon Mahon, the right wing Catholic MP for Bootle, he worked to end this unofficial struggle. The strike lasted for seven weeks over August and September. It was led by the National Seamen’s Reform Movement, a body with support in all British ports. It had been set up to campaign for democratic reform within the notoriously bureaucratic National Union of Seamen. The NSRM called a national strike when, without consulting the rank and file of the union, the Executive Committee of the NUS made an agreement with the Shipping Federation. They accepted conditions and wages far below what the majority of seamen had been expecting.
The strikers demanded a 44-hour week, a £4 a month increase, and the election of shop stewards to represent them aboard ship. Immediately after the strike began, sixteen seamen were arrested in London. Eight of them were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. Eight others were sentenced to forfeit six days pay. The charge was that by striking they had ‘disobeyed a lawful order’ under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894. During the course of the strike there were arrests in every port, with fines and gaolings. On August 13th, warrants were sworn out for the arrest of the Liverpool leaders of the NSRM for ‘intimidation’. In Montreal, 37 British seamen were arrested, again on the charge of ‘disobeying a lawful order’.
Among the Liverpool working class, support for the seamen was overwhelming. There were several big demonstrations through the city. On August 16th, Merseyside dockers struck for a day in sympathy with the seamen and five to six thousand dockers and seamen marched to the Pier Head in a silent demonstration carrying a banner inscribed: ‘Death to the 1894 Act’.
As a result of action by the Cunard Shipping Company, the chairman of the National Seaman’s Reform Movement — Paddy Neary, a Liverpool seaman — was brought before a court in London for disobeying the order of a judge restraining him from conspiring to incite or inciting Cunard seamen to break their contract of employment. On August 23 he was found guilty of contempt of court and taken to Brixton prison. The gaoling of Neary shocked Merseyside. On August 24 two thousand seamen marched through Liverpool. The Trades Council and Labour Party called for a demonstration on Tuesday August 30. On that day there was the biggest demonstration that had ever been seen in Liverpool. At the end of the march the Liverpool Stadium was packed and overflowing.
On the platform was Councillor Heffer, vice president of the Trades Council and Labour Party. Also there, was Councillor Hart, Constructional Engineering Union official, ex-Communist Party member and former seaman who had been imprisoned as one of the leaders of the 1947 seaman’s strike. It was Hart who ended his speech amid prolonged and thunderous applause by declaring: ‘We must light a flame tonight which will spread throughout the country and burn higher and higher till Brixton gaol opens and Neary is released.’
It must be said for Simon Mahon MP, the only right winger on the platform, that he gave no indication that he was lighting any fires over Paddy Neary. Mahon offered to ‘mediate’ between the seamen and their union. His aim was to bring back the strikers, he said ‘into the fold of the negotiating machinery of the NTJS, the only body with whom the shipowners will talk’.
Thus the idea of ‘mediation’ was born. Following this meeting the mediators appeared in the centre of the stage. They were: Simon Mahon, Eric Heffer and Simon Frazer, full time secretary of the Trades Council and Labour Party and a direct link with the bureaucracy at Labour and TUC headquarters. Hart joined the team in the later stages.
The mediating committee had not come into the fight for the purpose of widening the campaign and developing the fire in the labour movement. The meeting in the Stadium in fact was the peak point of any action to free Neary. Neary remained in gaol until after the strike ended in confusion, thanks to the mediators. The stadium orator — Hart — joined the others to extinguish the flames. The task of Heffer and the other three ‘honest brokers’ was to move everything away from the major issues of the strike, including the release of Neary, to a question of meetings between strikers and union leaders.
Heffer, Frazer and Mahon sailed off to the Isle of Man to get hold of Sir Tom Yates, general secretary of the NUS, who was attending the Trades Union Congress, and discuss with him how to end the strike. Yates refused to address the strikers but eventually agreed to send Scott, the assistant General Secretary, to Liverpool. Scott spoke to a seamen’s meeting in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on September 9th, with Heffer in the chair. It was long and stormy. At one point Mahon told the seamen not to be childish. Heffer said that If they were to stay out till they got the points they were demanding then they would be out for ever.
At one point the meeting almost broke up. It was saved by Heffer. It happened over the question of union branch meetings. All over the country seamen had been demanding branch meetings which had been refused by officials. Scott was asked to call branch meetings. He said he couldn’t do it. At that answer seats clicked back with a sound like machine-gun fire. The entire audience rose to leave the hall. Heffer sprang up, holding up his arms like Moses before the River Jordan. ‘Brothers! Brothers!’ he shouted, ‘I have sat through this meeting hoping for a glimmer of light. Someone has to talk about this thing in a sensible manner. Let’s continue.’ After ten minutes of hard work he persuaded the audience to stay. A shaken Scott pledged that he would try to persuade the officials of the union to countermand the order that no branch meetings of the union would be held before a return to work.
Two days later Yates declared there could be no question of meetings before the strike was over. The mediators went into action again. This time they succeeded in ending the strike. Yates agreed to meet them with two members of the NSRM – Barlow and Kean. Following that meeting and further contact between the mediators and Scott, the Liverpool NSRM committee recommended a return, and Liverpool seamen on September 22 decided to end their strike. Other ports followed. The strike ended on the terms worked out with the help of the mediators. After a public declaration that the strike was ended, branch meetings would immediately take place. The union leaders pledged to fight victimisation and seek a revision of the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act. There was no mention of 44 hours, the £4, or the release of Paddy Neary.
That the seamen’s strength was not completely shattered by this debacle, and that in the following period there were some changes in the union and the election of shop stewards on the ships, is despite the activities of Heffer and the mediation committee in the strike. So far as Heffer was concerned it marked his emergence as a ‘responsible’ figure.
Later, in the official seamen’s strike of 1966, we find him once again coming forward as the ‘honest broker’, on a slightly more ‘exalted’ level. Two years before he had been elected MP for Walton and joined that ‘left’ group of MPs which has surely been the most spineless in British history. He recounts what happened in his book which was published in 1973. The title of the book is — and how could it be otherwise? — The Class Struggle in Parliament and describes itself as a ‘Socialist view of industrial relations’. With pride, Heifer refers to his mediation in 1960. He gives the reader his references in the introduction. He was a shop steward in the building trade, he says, and then goes on: ‘I was, with Simon Mahon MP’, Simon Frazer, secretary of the Liverpool Trades Council, and Mr Bill Hart, a mediator in the seamen’s strike of 1960. And believe it or not I sat on the other side of the fence, i.e., the employers’ side when I was chairman of the works committee of the Liverpool City Council. In that sense, I suppose, it is a unique record. Shop Steward, mediator and employer.’
To return to the seamen’s strike of 1966. It was a strike that the Labour Government was determined to destroy. It was a necessary task for Wilson and Co in order to defend capitalism, in crisis, and carry out their plans for curbing the unions. Wilson launched a vicious witch-hunt against the seamen, declaring they were led by a ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men’. Heffer writes mildly in his book that Wilson ‘overestimated the influence of the Communist Party’. He goes on to describe his own role:
How snivelling it all sounds, when we remember that demands had been made again and again on Heffer to fight Wilson. Immediately after the election of a Labour Government in 1964, the Socialist Labour League (predecessor of the Workers Revolutionary Party) and the Young Socialists exposed how the Government was seeking solutions to the economic crisis demanded by the international bankers.
In her book Inside Number Ten even Marcia Williams recalls how the ‘Gnomes of Zurich’ throughout the early period had continued to press upon Harold the need for ‘freeze and squeeze measures’.
We should add that she also relates how at No. 10 the question was posed — not very seriously of course — about holding an election to decide, as she puts it, ‘Whether we were going to be a country unable to practise democracy because we were dictated to by overseas financiers’. The final word on this however, was that of Lord Cromer —the Governor of the Bank of England — a frequent and backdoor visitor to No.10 during this early period of the 1964 Government. He knew Wilson and his clique of reformist leaders would never willingly put capitalism at risk and he settled the discussion by telling him that such an election would itself have disastrous financial results.
The weakest in society were bit first by the new Labour Government. An increase to the old age pensioners was refused. On February 4, 1965, the Young Socialists organised a march of one thousand with a strong contingent of old age pensioners and lobbied the left MPs including Heffer. On February 26, 1966, there was the great demonstration and lobby against the anti-union laws called by the Lambeth Trades Council. As a result of the campaign by the SLL and the Young Socialists, all the big construction sites on Merseyside stopped work on the day of the lobby and six hundred Merseyside workers travelled to London. Again Heffer was lobbied by trade unionists and Young Socialists.
During the seamen’s strike itself, on May 25, nearly eight thousand Merseyside dockers stopped work in support of a London demonstration and lobby of Parliament called by the Young Socialists. They were expressing a deep-going concern amongst the working class at the capitalist policies of the Labour Government and its attacks on workers’ rights. Dockers, seamen and Young Socialists once again demanded a fight.
There is a comment about Heffer at this time in the ‘Shop Stewards News Sheet’ for February 1967 published by the Joint Shop Stewards Committee of Lucas-CAV. These two factories were in Heffer’s constituency and at that time employed 1,800 workers. Paddy Mullane, secretary of the stewards’ committee, writes:
Speaking as the secretary of the Lucas-CAV joint shop stewards’
committee I know members of this committee have put a lot of time and
effort into the fight. What fighting has Eric Heffer done? A couple of
weeks ago Heffer was given the opportunity of introducing a private members
Bill. What subject did he choose? He sought legislation to outlaw coursing,
a so-called sport where hounds tear a hare to pieces.
I would ask in conclusion that every trade unionist on this site supports the lobby of Parliament on February 2lst when we intend to tell Eric Heffer to get his priorities right and also to let him know in no uncertain manner: You can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
At this time, as in the years following, the Stalinists gave covering fire to Heffer and the other left reformists. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions, controlled by the Communist Party, concentrated on not embarrassing these people. They attempted to turn local meetings to organise action into rallies, and twice in 1967 they attempted to stop demonstrations in London. As the January 1968 Young Socialist paper, Keep Left, declared:
It is the Young Socialist movement, Keep Left, and the thousands of youth who support our programme and who are constantly waging a campaign against the Labour Government’s policies.
In 1966, when the Queen’s Speech proposed Prices and Incomes legislation, Cousins resigned as Minister of Technology in protest. Benn took the job. He supported the legislation. Heffer writes in his book that Benn ‘just could not believe that the Government was alienating the trade unions and their members. Today, of course, the same ex-Cabinet Minister realised just how wrong the Government were. He at least is prepared to admit his mistakes. Others are not.’
What does it matter if you betray, so long as you admit it was a mistake?
At the very beginning of 1969 the Labour Government introduced its White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’. Heffer called the Government’s proposals a ‘barrel of honey spoiled by a spoonful of tar’. Those proposals included forcing trade unionists to have a ballot before a national strike was called; compulsory ‘cooling off periods before strikes; the deduction of fines from wages and the compulsory registration of trade unions. Heffer reports that ‘resolutions against In Place of Strife poured into Transport House. MPs sympathetic to the White Paper went home to their constituencies and found little sympathy’.
So great was the opposition among trade unionists that in March, 56 Labour MPs dared to put up their hands against the White Paper in the House of Commons. With anger amongst the ranks of the working class there was a mass one-day strike on Merseyside. Over ten thousand workers marched in London. In face of widespread demand for General Council was forced to call an emergency TUC.
The Tribune group was forced to warn the Government it was heading for a serious clash with the Labour movement throughout the country. On a motion of Gormley, the NEC of the Labour Party repudiated ‘In Place of Strife’. Callaghan voted for the motion. However, Heffer and the Tribune — who advocated a ‘genuinely voluntary incomes policy’ — heaved a sigh of relief soon after the emergency TUC. Both the Labour and the trade union was shaken by the mass opposition to the proposals to shackle the unions. An agreement was reached between the TUC and the Government. The Government retreated on its proposals. A ‘solemn and binding undertaking’ was given by the TUC General Council that it would seek to prevent unconstitutional stoppages and ensure that affiliated organisations would not take strike action until procedure was exhausted.
In reference to the penal clauses which the Government had been proposing a Tribune editorial now declared: ‘They’ve gone for good.’ [my emphasis — BR] Heffer and the other lefts rejoiced. Here, thank God, was once again, unity in the labour movement. When the Tories won the election in 1970, Heffer was brought onto the Labour Front Bench as a spokesman against the Industrial Relations Bill. Ignoring Tribune’s editorial, the Tories built on the Labour Government’s attacks on the unions and extended the penal restrictions.
Heffer could now let off a deal of verbal opposition. Meanwhile, workers’ anger gathered against the Tory Government. Thousands of Liverpool trade unionists after a demonstration to the Pier Head passed a resolution demanding that the TUC call a General Strike against the Tory Government’s attack on the unions. Heffer writes in Class Struggle in Parliament: ‘Many workers were demanding a General Strike, and this became a popular demand as the campaign got under way. Personally, although I had a great deal of sympathy with this demand, a continuous General Strike was not the answer.’
When the AUEW called a one-day stoppage to coincide with the Special Trades Union Congress of March 1971, the Tories challenged Heffer in the House of Commons to state his attitude to it. He refused to come out in support. Wilson had condemned the strike! Later, of course, he had no alternative but to support the one-day General Strike that the TUC was forced to call against the imprisonment of the Pentonville dockers for picketing.
There is no credit due to Heffer and the lefts for the collapse of the Tory Government under the mass opposition in the working class expressed by the miners.
The Labour Government which followed repealed the Industrial Relations Act. However, with the assistance of the TUC General Council, afraid of the development of mass struggles, it continued the attacks on the working class with the Social Contract. The Government set itself out to smash workers’ struggles to defend their wages and standards. Heffer praised the Government for its ‘dismantling’ of the Industrial Relations Act. Meanwhile, of course, the instruments for civil repression were steadily strengthened in the police and the army. Oppression and torture in northern Ireland continued. With hardly a squeak Heffer watched while the Government allied with Liberals, Powell and Ulster Unionists.
Again it was a seamen’s struggle which was of central importance. The threatened seamen’s strike of 1976 set off the events that led to the Lib-Lab coalition. It was the fact that the seamen’s challenge to the Social Contract brought up sharply the questions of working-class power. This led to the desperate pressure of the TLJC on the seamen’s leaders and the acquiescence of the Lefts, and Heffer, in the coalition which followed soon after. The seamen demanded an increase which had been postponed from the previous year. A ballot of the membership went in favour of strike action and the EC of the union called a strike. The General Council of the TUC demanded that the NUS pull back. They accused the seamen of jeopardising the Labour Government’s policies and undermining the Social Contract. The threat of the strike shook the pound; millions were wiped off share values; Callaghan cancelled a visit to Canada. The TUC leaders worked might and main on the seamen’s executive. They threatened to suspend the union from the TUC. Eventually the NUS executive voted to postpone the strike by eight votes to seven. In the following days a formula for fringe benefits was given the backing of the TUC and the seamen’s executive agreed to call the strike off entirely, by a majority of two votes
The Government had put in hand preparations for Emergency legislation. Had it come before Parliament, would Heffer have voted against this time? There is not the least indication in his activity during this last Labour Government that he would have done so. He might, of course, have apologised later, as the mass movement developed! Heffer stayed out of the seamen’s strike this time. His criticisms of the Labour government were that of a sober Parliamentarian. Words against the right wing were one thing, but mobilising workers against the TUC leaders and the Labour Government in what could only turn into a struggle for power, was something entirely different, So, in the Grunwick strike and the firemen’s strike, Heffer gave some verbal support but made no attempt to fight the betrayals of the Labour and trade union bureaucrats.
The anti-working class nature of the Labour Government, its danger to
the working class, was absolutely clear. But Heffer was fundamentally
opposed to the WRP demand to force the Government out and unleash the
mass movement. For him it has been a question of opposing without fundamentally
breaking with the right wing. His excuse is that the utmost unity of the
Labour Party has to be preserved, in order to have it as an instrument
to introduce socialism through Parliament.
Heffer is for socialism via the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is cracking
no joke when he writes: ‘jam not suggesting that the path to
The ‘socialist’ proposals of Heffer and Co. are not policies to assist the mobilisation of workers for power. They are capitalist, nationalist solutions to the capitalist crisis. Of course, Heffer will adjust under a movement from the workers. In the middle of the 1960s he was writing in favour of the Common Market. Opposition in Walton and in the unions moved him to oppose. That points to the danger for the future. The lefts such as Heffer will adjust verbally to the mass struggles that are now posed. But, however they move and twist they cannot face the question of power. That is not a question of making demagogic adjustments to workers in struggle, but of building a revolutionary party and breaking the grip of the reformist bureaucracy. All his political life since 1947, Heffer has opposed the revolutionary party. The times, since 1964, when the workers were in sharp struggle with the right wing he looks on with horror. He writes:
‘During the days of “In Place of Strife” I felt as if I were living in a never-ending nightmare.’
The mass movement of the working class did not inspire him.
The break with the right wing frightened him. Together with the revisionists
and Stalinists today the role of Heffer is to divert workers as they go
through the experience of a decisive break with social democracy. The
future of Heffer as of all those who perform this role depends on us.
It depends on how we train a cadre, conduct a theoretical and practical
struggle against centrism and revisionism, and build a revolutionary leadership
of the working class.