Tory strategy reflected the interests of monopoly finance capital in the City of London: to restore corporate profitability through privatisation, cuts in public services, lower wages, higher labour productivity, curbs on trade union rights and massive tax reductions for the rich and big business. An ideological offensive was launched in favour of 'free markets' and 'free' (i.e. monopoly) enterprise, accompanied by rearmament and a renewed ideological Cold War against the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Red Army intervened in Afghanistan to support one faction of the revolutionary government against another, and to help it resist CIA-backed subversion, the British government supplied military and financial assistance to the reactionary 'mujahedeen'. The decision of the CP executive committee to oppose the Soviet intervention provoked open defiance in the Party and the pages of the Morning Star.
At home, too, the Thatcher regime was quick to declare war on the working class. It brought new management into British Leyland to sack powerful Communist works convenor Derek Robinson at the Longbridge car plant, in November 1979. The security service MI5 also had a hand in the affair, as did the new right-wing leadership of the AUEW.
In response, Longbridge workers struck to defend Robinson. But whereas the TGWU was set to back the unofficial action, his own AUEW leaders opted for a joint inquiry with BL management instead. Three months later, with the momentum lost, under a deluge of anti-Red propaganda and fearful for their jobs, a majority could no longer be won for action to reinstate him.
Robinson's offence, supposedly, was to have published with others an alternative survival plan—including the possibility of mass action—for the publicly owned, mismanaged and under-funded company. His real crime was to be the leader of a huge, well-organised combine of militant shop stewards facing company plans to shed at least 25,000 jobs. The ruling class wanted to send a message to every workers' representative in Britain: “If we can sack ‘Red Robbo’, we can sack you”.
The government and state then took on the steelworkers, achieving mass redundancies in exchange for a wage rise. The teachers were then defeated in industrial action over their terms and conditions.
The Tories abolished important trade union rights, hacked away at public services, privatised the nationalised industries, extended the powers of the police and the courts, hammered local government and awarded enormous tax cuts to the rich. Marxism Today announced the arrival of a new phenomenon—'Thatcherism'—rather than analyse the switch by state-monopoly capitalism to a more aggressive strategy of class confrontation.
As unemployment soared towards three million, the Communist Party drew on its traditional strengths and alliances to initiate two People's Marches for Jobs.
The first, from Liverpool to London in 1981, received support from the Scottish, Welsh and regional TUCs—although a Tory minister attacked it for being politically motivated, quoting from an article by the then left-wing Labour MP Neil Kinnock in the Morning Star. On May 30, more than 100,000 supporters accompanied the marchers into Trafalgar Square. A few weeks later, angered by mass unemployment, racist policing and fascist attacks, young and unemployed people rioted in dozens of English towns and cities.
The British TUC backed the second march, in 1983, from Glasgow to London with five additional feeder marches. It helped make unemployment a major issue at the General Election in June, although the 'Falklands' factor ensured a Thatcher victory.
Despite having sold a battleship and other weapons to the junta in Buenos Aires, while reducing British citizenship rights of the islanders, the Thatcher government had sent a military taskforce to retake the Falklands from Argentina. Labour Party leaders sided with British imperialism and its determination to hold onto mineral rights in the South Atlantic, while the CP and the Morning Star called for withdrawal of the military 'Task Force' in order to pursue a peaceful settlement.
During the subsequent election campaign, the Tories placed full-page adverts in the national press listing key common policies from the Labour and Communist Party manifestos, under the heading 'Like Your Manifesto, Comrade?'
There was one country where the Tories joined their ally US President Reagan and the Pope in supporting strikes, mass demonstrations and free trade unionism ... Poland. In the face of big and popular mobilisations by the 'Solidarity' trade union movement, General Jaruzelski and the military had taken over the government there at the end of 1981.
The CP leadership in Britain opposed martial law, demanding the release of detained trade union leaders and a return to civilian rule. Many other Party members believed that the real aim of Solidarność, with its material and financial support from the US National Endowment for Democracy, was to bring down the socialist system.
Nevertheless, the Communist Party was united in its opposition to the reactionary regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Both dictatorships imprisoned, tortured and executed Communists and progressives, while US and British imperialism armed Iraq for its brutal invasion of Iran. Communists in Britain played a vital role in sustaining organisations of solidarity with the Iraqi and Iranian people, working in unity with Communists from those countries now domiciled here, winning widespread support within the British labour movement.
By now in the grip of a fresh bout of Cold War fever, the Tories were determined to install Cruise and Trident nuclear missile systems. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and surrounded military bases at Greenham Common and elsewhere. While Defence minister Heseltine denounced Communist Party influence in CND, one of its leaders Bruce Kent hailed the CP as 'partners in peace' at the Party's 38th congress in 1983. He also praised the Morning Star for its 'steady, honest and generous coverage of the whole nuclear disarmament case'.
By then, Eurocommunists, now the dominant force in the Party leadership, had launched a furious attack on the class-based, pro-Soviet politics of the Morning Star and its editor Tony Chater. In a period when the resurgent Labour left headed by Tony Benn would have benefited from Communist support and advice about the importance of extra-parliamentary alliances and mass struggle, the Eurocommunists instead denounced Labour Party socialists as the 'hard left'.
On March 12 1984, the NUM struck against the National Coal Board's pit closure programme. President Arthur Scargill and the union's executive turned a collection of local strikes into a national one, on the authority of previous conference resolutions.
The Tories had spent the second half of the previous decade drawing up plans—contained in the Carrington and Ridley Reports—for such a confrontation, with the intention of breaking the power of the miners and their union. All the powers of the state—the police, the courts, the intelligence services, the BBC, the Central Electricity Generating Board and even the social security system—were deployed against the miners, whom Prime Minister Thatcher branded 'the enemy within'.
Communists across the inner-party divide threw themselves into the struggle with energy and imagination, helping to mobilise solidarity through miners' support groups, Women Against Pit Closures and among lesbians and gays and the black and Asian communities. The Morning Star reported the strike prolifically, handing over the front page to the NUM to put its case.
After the defeat, NUM vice-president Mick McGahey told the Party’s 39th congress that 'the basic weakness of the miners’ strike … was that the Communist Party was not strong enough in industry, was not organised in factory branches'.
The full truth was more severe: despite the efforts of so many CP members, the Party itself had failed to provide the united direction to the struggle that it had in 1972 and 1974. The revisionist leadership spent much of its time sniping at Scargill and militant picketing rather than meeting the NUM leadership to plan solidarity activities. Centrally, more CP resources went into attacking the Morning Star than into putting the case for solidarity action with the miners. Marxism Today's contribution to the struggle was negligible.
Long before the miners—at least those not victimised—returned to work on March 5, 1985, Party members and trade union allies had risen in open revolt against the CP leadership and its Eurocommunist faction. At the AGM in 1984 of the People's Press Printing Society, the cooperative which owned the Morning Star, they had voted for the paper's management committee against candidates proposed by the Party's executive.
That same year, the large North West and London district congresses had also opposed the CP leadership, despite an attempt by General Secretary Gordon Maclennan to close down the latter. In 1985, leading dissidents including Chater and Morning Star deputy editor David Whitfield were expelled from the CP, as the self-styled 'revolutionary democrats' proceeded to carry out one of the biggest purges in the Party's history. Another casualty was PPPS management committee chair Ken Gill, about to become the first-ever Communist president of the TUC.
Thousands of shareholders in the Morning Star's cooperative, including Arthur Scargill, inflicted a heavy defeat on the revisionist leadership at the 1985 AGM, although the Eurocommunists and their allies tightened their grip on the Party's apparatus and congress. By the end of 1985, around 101 Party members had been expelled and another 600 deregistered. Few industrial advisory committees still functioned and the YCL had shrunk to just 44 members.
In these desperate conditions, the Communist Campaign Group (CCG) was formed to unite Marxist-Leninists inside and now also outside the Party, to continue Communist political work and defeat revisionism and liquidationism. It also began to produce a theoretical journal, the Communist Campaign Review.
A leading CCG member, former London district CP chair Mike Hicks, came to the fore in the year-long dispute at Wapping. Media baron Rupert Murdoch provoked a strike in January 1986 in order to replace 6,000 print workers with new technology and a small 'scab' workforce—recruited with the help of the electricians' union, later expelled from the TUC. The plot was revealed first in the Morning Star, based on leaked News International documents.
Hicks, a union lay official, was emblematic of the militant spirit of the printers and their supporters on the picket lines. But during his imprisonment on a trumped-up charge of assaulting a police chief, the union leadership under Brenda (later Baroness) Dean called off the action.
By this time, it was clear to many that there appeared to be prospect of returning the CP to its rules, principles and programme was remote. Further fragmentation and the disappearance of the Communist Party was an ever present danger. Extraordinary circumstances called forth extraordinary measures.