This is the first part of a study of the political tendency associated with John Lawrence – a subject which, so far as we know, has never been dealt with in any detail by historians of the Trotskyist movement in Britain.
As students of these matters will be aware, Lawrence headed a faction within the British section of the Fourth International which fought against Gerry Healy and his supporters during a split in the FI in 1953. But Lawrence’s group formally dissolved itself soon afterwards, and eventually disappeared without trace, while Healy went on to build an organisation which did exercise some political influence, at least by the standards of the far left in Britain. Over the years, tens of thousands of would-be revolutionaries passed through the ranks of the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party, and were indoctrinated with a view of the past in which John Lawrence loomed large as a leading representative of “Pabloite revisionism” but was otherwise written out of history.
Whatever mistakes Lawrence and his comrades may have committed, their tendency deserves a place in the historiography of British Trotskyism, not least as a distinctive example of political work by Marxists in the Labour Party. This study concentrates on the activities of the group in the St Pancras labour movement in the late 1950s. For reasons of space, it will appear in four parts. But look on the bright side. At least it’s shorter than that interminable series on Gerry Healy [The Rise and Fall …] which the author published in Workers News a few years back.
IN MARCH 1958, the monthly meeting of St Pancras Borough Council took place amid scenes of unprecedented disorder. Members of the fascist Union Movement unfurled a Union Jack in one of the public galleries and scattered leaflets with the slogan “Mosley is right” down into the council chamber, screaming “dirty reds” and “filthy traitors” at members of the Labour Group. In the opposite gallery, Labour and Communist Party members shouted abuse back at the Mosleyites, and waved a Red Flag. Councillors speaking in the debate were repeatedly drowned out by boos, jeers and counter-cheers. At one point the mayor suspended the meeting for ten minutes and called in the police to restore order.
The cause of this pandemonium was a proposal by the Labour Group to mark May Day by giving council employees a day’s paid holiday and in addition – it was this aspect of the plan which provoked such a hysterical response from the right wing – by flying the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall in place of the Union Jack.
Supporting the proposal to fly the Red Flag, Labour councillor Hilda Lane declared: “It has been the symbol of workers all over the world ever since May Day came about. I am all for showing the people of St Pancras that we do honour to, and dedicate ourselves to the aims of the working class. I hope the day will also come when we shall see it flying over the House of Commons.” This was greeted with Tory cries of “Oh, no” and uproar from the galleries. Another Labour councillor, David Goldhill, said that throughout the whole world workers would be celebrating May Day and people all over St Pancras would be pleased to see the Red Flag. At this there was continual hissing from the fascists in the gallery, one of whom leant over and, pointing at Goldhill, shouted: “The Hungarians were pleased to see it, weren’t they?”
Councillor Timothy Donovan, leader of the Conservative minority, asserted to cheers from the Mosleyites that “an overwhelming number of people” in St Pancras were opposed to flying the Red Flag. Donovan denounced the proposal as yet another of the “political antics” in which he claimed the Labour Group habitually engaged. He rejected the argument that the Red Flag represented the labour movement as a whole, and insisted that it was “the symbol throughout the world of Communism”. Winding up the debate, the leader of the council, John Lawrence, stated: “Whatever the opposition say, the Red Flag will still fly over the Town Hall and, for my money, over Buckingham Palace as well.” The resolution was passed by 31 votes to 21, and the announcement of the result was greeted with boos and cheers. “We will tear the Town Hall apart to reach that flag on May 1, you swines”, the fascists shouted.
ONLY A FEW years earlier such scenes would have been inconceivable on St Pancras Borough Council. In her book Left, Left, Left, Peggy Duff recalls that, when she became a councillor in 1953, St Pancras Council was “abysmally dull. Since the end of the war the Council had swung with each election, first Labour, then Tory, then Labour again, and there was not all that much difference between them. Certainly there was much more cooperation between the very orthodox Labour leader, Fred Powe, and the Tories than between Fred and his backbenchers. Council meeting were brief. Occasionally we were treated to a measured speech, usually on libraries, and, once a year, on the rate. Backbenchers slept on the backbenches”.
The subsequent shift to the left in St Pancras Labour Group, and the resulting dramatic transformation of political life in St Pancras, was outcome of an extended period of political work by a group around John Lawrence, Hilda Lane and David Goldhill, all three of whom were veterans of the Trotskyist movement.
John Lawrence had briefly been a Communist Party member in the late 1930s, but had broken from the CP in opposition to its pacifist response to the outbreak of the Second World War. He then joined the Revolutionary Socialist League, the official section of the Fourth International, and had become the leading figure in the Trotskyist Opposition, a faction within the RSL which advocated unity with the “unofficial” Workers International League. David Goldhill had been won to Trotskyism in 1940 while a member of the Independent Labour Party. He made contact with a Trotskyist grouping around Hilda Lane, and after being called up continued to attend discussions at Lane’s flat at Chamberlain House in Ossulston Street, St Pancras, while home on leave. Hilda Lane herself came from a wealthy west country family, which had close connections with the Labour Party leadership. She had joined the party at an early age, and became a member of the ILP, at a time when it was still a Labour affiliate. She went along with the ILP when it decided to break from the Labour Party in 1932, and was then recruited to the Marxist Group, a Trotskyist tendency that had followed Trotsky’s advice and entered the ILP with the aim of winning it to revolutionary politics.
George Wagner, who was one of the leading opponents of the Lawrence group in the St Pancras party, would later credit Hilda Lane with providing the “brain power” of the group. He described her as “a very well-read Marxist, of the Trotskyite variety, with no absolutely no sense of humour wherever you looked – she always had the corners of her mouth firmly tucked under her armpits. But those of us who were against her, I was one of them, got on somehow with her bearably well, and when she died, after she had been thrown out of the party, we still all stood in memory of her for two minutes at the management committee”.
Lawrence, Lane and Goldhill all became members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the unified Trotskyist organisation formed in 1944, and within the RCP they had supported the faction led by Gerry Healy which argued for entry into the Labour Party. Because the British Trotskyist leadership headed by Jock Haston and Ted Grant carried a majority of the organisation in opposition to this line, in 1947 the Fourth International had split the RCP and authorised the Healy faction to begin entry work as a separate group.
The Socialist Fellowship, established in 1949 as the result of a back-to-socialism appeal in Reynolds News by Ellis Smith MP (“We should sing songs again and mean them, the good old socialist songs”), briefly provided a vehicle for the Healyites’ entry work before being proscribed by the Labour Party National Executive Committee in 1951. But the main focus for the activities of “the Club” (as Healy’s group was secretly known) was the paper Socialist Outlook, which first appeared in 1948 with John Lawrence as editor. Conceived as a “broad” publication aimed at the Labour left, it included non-Trotskyists on its editorial board and put forward a left reformist rather than a Trotskyist political line. The paper was also distinguished by a rather soft attitude towards Stalinism. This was partly due to the fact that some of the figures who had been attracted to Outlook were Communist Party fellow travellers opposed to the “cold war socialism” which characterised Labour’s main left publication Tribune in the late 1940s, but more fundamentally it reflected a general tendency in the post-war Fourth International.
In 1953 a bitter dispute erupted in the Healyite group in response to charges by the US Trotskyists that the International’s European leadership headed by Michel Pablo was capitulating to Stalinism. Healy and his supporters, who had till then raised no objections to the politics of the International’s leaders, nevertheless sided with the Americans, while a group around Lawrence backed Pablo. A fierce struggle for control of Socialist Outlook ensued, in which Healy was eventually victorious, although shortly afterwards the paper was proscribed by the NEC. Healy and his supporters having been expelled from the Fourth International, the “Pabloites” under Lawrence’s leadership briefly functioned as the International’s British section, but at the end of 1954 they broke with the FI and from that point effectively ceased to exist as a formal organisation. The Lawrence tendency continued to be active in the Labour Party, however, evolving along lines which had political roots in the earlier Socialist Outlook period, and their work came to be concentrated in Holborn and St Pancras South CLP.
This work reached fruition in John Lawrence’s election as council leader in 1956. At the first Labour Group meeting after the party’s victory in that year’s local election, Fred Powe was re-elected unchallenged as leader. But it was then discovered that Powe had allocated five vacant aldermanic seats to the Tories, on the basis of a “gentlemen’s agreement” he had reached with Tory leader Donovan in 1953, according to which the Conservative opposition would be allowed to appoint aldermen in proportion to the number of seats they held on the council. The de-selection of several sitting right wing councillors and their replacement with left wingers had given the new Labour Group a different political complexion, and they were not going to allow Powe’s backstairs deal with their political enemies to go unchallenged. It was moved that Labour should take all the aldermanic seats, whereupon Powe declared that he would resign if the motion was passed. “They passed it”, Peggy Duff recounts. “He resigned. So did the newly-elected chief whip. There was a horrible silence. Then someone nominated John Lawrence from the South Party. There were no further nominations. Fred was out and John was in. St Pancras was also in for five years of turbulence.”
The first meeting of the new council gave a taste of things to come, as Tory councillors “seethed with indignation” at the Labour Group’s outrageous behaviour. Their complaints about the broken agreement brought an angry response from John Lawrence. “I don’t agree with that agreement”, he shouted at the Tories. “I, for one, think the office of alderman should be abolished. They are not elected people. But, since we are compelled under local government law to make a number of aldermen, so long as we are in control of the council we shall make them Labour aldermen and not Tories. We have scrapped this agreement and you will have to put up with it the best you can.” One visiting journalist who witnessed the scene was quite appalled by this breach of political etiquette. “St Pancras used to have a sense of dignity in its civil affairs”, he told the North London Press, “and as one who spent many years in the borough I was always proud of the way its affairs were conducted irrespective of party. Last week’s bitterness and acrimony were entirely out of character. What has happened I do not know, but the overthrowing of an agreement in a belligerent and extremely unpleasant manner and the leader of the Labour Council telling the other side to make the best of it was redolent of a totalitarian mind.”
By “totalitarian”, of course, the speaker intended his audience to read “Communist”. This was an accusation which was to become commonplace during Lawrence’s tenure as Council leader, and there appeared to be some substance to it. For a distinctive feature of the Lawrence-Lane-Goldhill group, and one which aroused the resentment of more orthodox Labour Party members, was their political affinity with the Communist Party.
That Trotskyists should try and cooperate with militant workers who followed the CP was not in itself surprising. In his autobiography Reluctant Revolutionary, Harry Ratner, who was at that time a member of the Healy group, argues that Communist Party hardliners were in fact closer to Trotskyism than is sometimes supposed: “In their hearts they were still dedicated revolutionaries. Whatever their doubts and misgivings, they still saw the Soviet Union and its leadership and the leadership of their own party, whatever their faults, as the only hope for the future progress of mankind. They, like us, saw themselves as soldiers in the world struggle for Socialism. The difference between us was on the road to our common goal. The fact that the Stalinist road did not lead to that goal does not detract from what we had in common.”
But the Lawrence group’s collaboration with the CP extended to ideological agreement on issues which usually divided Trotskyists and Communists. For example, Lawrence and his comrades shared the CP’s opposition to the demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament, a policy which enjoyed general support within the Labour left. At the 1957 party conference, a unilateralist resolution moved by Norwood delegate Vivienne Mendelson – a member of the Healy tendency – received a large minority vote, causing Aneurin Bevan to break with his former left wing allies and deliver his notorious speech about “not going naked into the conference chamber”, in which he denounced the proposal for unilateral disarmament as “an emotional spasm”. But the Lawrence group rejected unilateralism and endorsed the Communist Party’s multilateralist call for an international agreement to ban nuclear weapons. And in the case of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which the Healy group greeted as a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, Lawrence and his comrades accepted the official Communist Party view that it was essentially a counter-revolution which had to be suppressed – hence the fascists’ jibe at David Goldhill during the council debate on the Red Flag.
Indeed, on the issue of Hungary, the Lawrence-Lane-Goldhill group adopted an even more intransigent position than many Communist Party members did. In the case of the Holborn and St Pancras CP, Goldhill recalls, a lot of the members “were completely disorientated. And as far as I remember it was the old Trotskyists who were stern about this and said, you can’t support this revolution, it’s an anti-communist revolution – despite the terrible propaganda coming out you have to support the Soviet Union in attacking this. And I think we in fact felt that our job was to stiffen the Communist Party, which was showing signs of disintegrating completely over this. At the time, of course, a large number of well-known people left the Communist Party on that issue. And the papers were full of people beating their breasts and saying this was the last straw, that they could no longer be Communists. We thought that you had to be stern here and this was really what marked whether you believed in revolution or not. I do remember not having any doubts about that”.
In November 1956, therefore, when the TUC’s appeal for contributions to its Hungarian refugees’ aid fund was raised on St Pancras and Holborn Trades Council, Hilda Lane joined with CP hardliners in opposing this. Bakers’ union delegate F.W. Copset told a “stormy meeting” that he “wouldn’t give a penny of my cash to this appeal” and went on to suggest that the workers’ uprising “may well be a fascist move to get the capitalists back into power, although we don’t know yet”. Hilda Lane agreed that the situation in Hungary was far from clear and argued that any decision concerning a donation should be postponed. “There are many families in England living in shocking housing conditions”, she added. “Some of them are living in one room. Yet houses can be offered to these Hungarians as soon as they arrive.”
Another delegate, E.R. Friedlaender stated that he spoke with considerable feeling on the question, having himself been a refugee from Nazi Germany twenty years earlier. “I say no fascist movement could get a general strike going in the circumstances we have in Hungary”, he insisted. “The vast majority of these refugees are trade unionists and working people. I would gladly contribute to a fund which helps them.” But the proposal to make a donation was voted down by 11 votes to 8, a decision which was reported by the North London Press under the front-page headline: “Refusal to Aid Hungary. Trades Council Sensation in St Pancras.” The TUC later made clear its own equivocal commitment to the defence of democratic principles by suspending the trades council for its action.
One CP loyalist whose breast remained firmly unbeaten over Hungary was Jock Nicolson, who had stood as the party’s candidate for St Pancras North in the 1955 general election. Labour Party members, Nicolson warned in a letter to the North London Press, shouldn’t fall for “Tory red herrings” which were designed to “sow confusion and divisions in the ranks of the working class”. “In the past ten years”, he wrote, “International Capitalism has spent hundreds of millions, on their own admission, intervening in the internal affairs of the Socialist countries. They have sent in spies, wreckers and Fascist desperadoes to cause unrest and provoke bloodshed and violence. They have exploited genuine grievances, not to solve them in the interests of the Hungarian workers but to restore the rule of landlords and capitalists. Russian intervention prevented that. It also prevented the creation of a Fascist state in the heart of Europe which would have added to the danger of a Third World War. For that, we in Britain should be grateful. As for the Hungarians, conditions are being created that will enable them to overcome the temporary confusion in their ranks and advance in their own way to Socialism on the basis of complete equality and independence.”
Trotskyists would normally have been the first to condemn such arguments. In St Pancras, however, it was left to Peggy Duff to defend the Hungarian Revolution. “Of course a lot of the protests about the Russian action in Hungary are hypocritical”, she wrote in reply to Nicolson. “Repression is wrong anywhere and everywhere it exists, whether in Cyprus, Kenya, Guatemala or Hungary. But this applies also to Communists. Have they any right to protest about British and American actions if they attempt to justify the use of Russian tanks, not against Fascists and counter-revolutionaries, but against the working people of Hungary, against Communists like Nagy and Szigetti, against Social Democrats like Anna Kethly?” In any case, she advised, Nicolson ought to be careful: “The same sort of arguments were used by Communists in the 1930s against those of us who protested at the Stalinist trials. Twenty years later Khrushchev made a nonsense of them. Some latter-day Khrushchev may well arise in 1976 or, I sincerely hope, earlier, to make him eat his words.”
Another feature of the Lawrence group which separated them from traditional Trotskyism was their rejection of the established entryist tactic of building a group which maintains its own internal discipline and democratic-centralist structure while working inside a reformist party. “As far as Lawrence was concerned”, David Goldhill reveals, “we were virtually to dissolve the organisation. The thought was that Trotskyists, being so much better trained, would naturally keep together and hold their political understanding inside the Labour Party without the need of there being another organisation – and you couldn’t influence the Labour Party if you were obviously a secret faction with secret meetings, and came along to actual meetings with everything sorted out.” It was in line with this approach that, after losing control of Socialist Outlook, the Lawrence group made no attempt to bring out another paper. Instead, Goldhill points out, “there was a series of pamphlets, like Tom Braddock’s Victory for Socialism – so that was in lieu of a paper, a whole series of policy pamphlets, by Trotskyists in conjunction with left wing Labour Party people”.
Because of this looseness of organisation, the idea of a distinct “Lawrence group” is perhaps misleading. The St Pancras Labour Group and the South Party did contain what in later years would be called a “hard left”, but it involved figures who had very different political backgrounds from Lawrence, Lane and Goldhill. Among these Labour leftists of non-Trotskyist origin were Jock (today Lord) Stallard, Covent Garden porter and TGWU branch secretary Bernie Holland, print union activist Charlie Taylor and St Pancras Trades Council secretary Phil Sheridan. In addition there was a softer left mainly based in the North Party, of which Peggy Duff was perhaps the representative figure, who either favoured a less uncompromising political line on the council or rejected the core group’s sympathies with the politics of the CP.
The various political shadings on the Labour left in St Pancras were, however, united in their support for the radical stand which the council adopted under John Lawrence’s leadership on the question of housing policy – an issue which was of central importance in an area where there was a severe shortage of affordable rented accommodation for the working class. One of the council’s first actions after Lawrence became leader was to reduce rents for its tenants. It was, Peggy Duff commented, “probably the last time a council in Britain actually lowered rents. Naturally the Tories were furious”. As the Tory government moved to dismantle existing controls on the housing market, St Pancras Council adopted an attitude of defiance. Successive Acts in 1955-6 forced local authorities to hand back to private ownership the property they had requisitioned during and after the war to house the homeless, and their power to subsidise rents was restricted to individuals in financial need. But St Pancras rejected the imposition of a means test and continued a general subsidy for tenants in derequisitioned properties.
The notorious Rent Act of 1957, which decontrolled rents in the private sector, was bitterly opposed by the local Labour Party. The South Party headquarters in Hampstead Road was opened as an advice centre for private tenants, while Lawrence and his comrades helped to launch the Holborn and St Pancras Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee, which organised resistance to evictions of private tenants unable to pay the new rents. The Lawrence group also fought to commit the party nationally to a policy of militant opposition to the Rent Act.
At the 1957 Labour Party conference, in the debate on a motion urging the repeal of the Rent Act, Lawrence called on a future Labour government to reverse all the rent increases that had resulted from the Act. He was particularly scathing about a contribution by leading Labour right winger Alice Bacon, who rejected this proposal on the grounds that it was impossible to put the clock back. “Why can’t we put the clock back?” Lawrence demanded. “The Tories have put it forward and said we must pay rent increases. Why can’t we repeal the Rent Act and put rents back to where they were before? Why can’t we? There is nothing reactionary about putting the clock back when the clock is wrong. What would you say to tenants who are worried out of their lives and who are being asked for an extra £1 or 30s for the dirty rat-ridden hovels where I am living? When I go back they are going to ask me, when I tell them we are going to repeal the Rent Act, ‘What about this increase?’ I will say, ‘When we get a Labour government and they set up a tribunal you can make an appeal.’ That is not good enough. I want to be able to go back to them and say, ‘As soon as you get a Labour government your rent goes back to what it was before the Tories brought in their rotten Act’.”
In addition to their basic commitment to improving the material conditions of local people, under Lawrence’s leadership the St Pancras Labour Group engaged in a number of high profile actions with the aim of publicising their commitment to a fighting policy and inspiring a similar spirit of militancy in the working class. One such action, which created a scandal in the local and national press, was the decision in March 1957 to cut the mayor’s allowance from £1,779 to £300 a year. It was unacceptable, Lawrence insisted, that ratepayers’ money should be wasted on social functions which were open only to the select few. A Labour council had an obligation to dispense with “all this pomp and tradition”, and the mayor’s official engagements should be restricted to socially useful activities such as attending children’s parties in local schools. In line with the new egalitarian policy, it was also decided to withdraw the mayor’s car, and Lawrence announced that “in future our mayor will have to go about the borough by public transport”. The argument put forward by the then mayor, Alfred Hurst, that he still needed the mayoral car even if it was just for attending school parties, received short shrift from Lawrence. “What’s wrong with the mayor going to a schoolchildren’s party on a number 68 bus?” he asked.
This was a “sad and sorry decision”, the North London Press commented editorially. “What is the point of having a mayor without pomp and tradition? To a great many people he is the embodiment of local government, the figurehead who alone epitomises civic pride and local independence.” In a letter to the paper, David Goldhill rejected these arguments outright. Most people he had spoken to didn’t even know the name of the mayor, Goldhill pointed out. “Certainly no one considers it necessary for ‘civic pride and local independence’ that a mayor should have to attend a large number of balls and dinners, together with councillors, officials and dignitaries, and to which ordinary people are never asked, although of course they are permitted to pay the bills. These functions serve no useful purpose and make mayors and councillors feel they are different from ordinary folk; there are far too many things that the council should be doing to bring decent living conditions to everyone in St Pancras for even a small amount of money to be wasted in this way.”
The next action by St Pancras Labour Group to hit the headlines was the decision at a council meeting on 1 May 1957 to repudiate the local authority’s statutory obligation to organise Civil Defence. This issue had been simmering for some time in the labour movement, where it was generally recognised that training a Civil Defence Corps in emergency procedures and basic first aid techniques was both a waste of money and a conscious attempt to deceive the civilian population as to the horrific consequences of a nuclear attack. Labour-controlled Coventry City Council had refused to implement Civil Defence for these reasons in 1954, although they had backed down later under threat of councillors being surcharged for the cost of the government administering CD centrally. That same year, resolutions calling for St Pancras Borough Council to follow the example of Coventry had been passed by the general management committees of both the North and South parties. But because a majority of the then Labour Group was opposed to this, the decision had never been carried out.
The Tory government responded to the St Pancras decision, as it had in Coventry, by appointing a commissioner to take over the organisation of Civil Defence. This led to protests from the Labour Group, who had announced that they were going to convert the Civil Defence headquarters in Camden High Street into flats in order to provide housing the homeless. On 4 June, when the commissioner was due to arrive, the Labour Group held a demonstration outside the building, and John Lawrence chained himself to the gates in an attempt to prevent the commissioner entering the premises. Peggy Duff, who was ill with jaundice at the time, recalls that she was dragged out of bed by a telephone call asking her to organise press coverage of the event:
“So I arrived in the High Street to find a small group of John’s supporters, including several councillors, parading up and down outside the CD HQ with suitable banners: ‘Ban the Bomb’, ‘Destroy the Bomb or it will Destroy You’, ‘Stop the Tests’. It was, of course, 1957, and the British tests at Christmas Island were imminent. After some time a policeman arrived and plodded up and down the street beside the paraders. Now and again a very disapproving member of the WVS, who shared the building with CD, pushed her way through the gate. Then, when the copper was standing, half asleep, some way up the road, John produced a rather large and ostentatious padlock and chain and attached himself to the bars of the gate. For a time nothing happened. Nobody noticed. Shoppers hurried by and never turned to look. The policemen went on plodding up and down. Buses passed to and fro. No press arrived. There was the leader of the council chained to the CD gates – and nobody had turned to look. I had a horrible feeling that nobody ever would.
“Then at last the policeman as he passed saw that something was amiss. He stopped. He stared. ‘Why, sir’, he said, ‘who did that to you?’ ‘Nobody’, said John. ‘I did it myself.’ ‘But why did you do that, sir?’ the simple copper asked. ‘I did it as a protest against nuclear weapons’, John simply replied. The policemen hurried off to telephone a higher authority. Shoppers continued to pass by, unconcerned. Then, at last, a press photographer. Then another. Then a police car with more important, peak-capped coppers. Then gradually a crowd, at last.”
Lawrence shouted to the crowd: “We want these premises for housing, not for useless Civil Defence purposes. There is no defence against the H-bomb. There are 6,000 people on our housing list and we want to provide homes for four families to live here.” The police, however, produced a large pair of bolt-cutters and released Lawrence from his chains. They forced the crowd to disperse and took the names of the demonstrators, though no arrests were made. Eventually the police car drove off, unwittingly bearing a “Ban the Bomb” placard which had been stuck behind its back number plate.
On 14 June the Labour Group held a public meeting to explain its case against Civil Defence. First the audience watched a 20-minute film, Shadow of Hiroshima, which revealed what had happened to those who had survived the nuclear attack on the Japanese city in 1945. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Jack Redman who, evidently undaunted by the prospect of travelling on a 68 bus, had recently succeeded Alfred Hurst as mayor. Introducing John Lawrence, who was the main speaker, Redman stated: “I have never met a young councillor with so much pluck, so much guts and so much fighting spirit. It is a pleasure to serve under him.”
Lawrence spoke for an hour justifying the council’s stand. He told the meeting: “Normally the borough council is a very homely body of people, a very practical body of people who spend most of their time cleaning your dustbins, getting rid of your bugs and building your houses. Now we are asked to carry out the government’s essential defence policy and we say that is a complete waste of ratepayers’ money.” He continued: “Our Civil Defence Corps consists of wardens with whistles and one telephone box. It is clear that if an H-bomb dropped here, most of London would be destroyed. Even if you can patch up a broken leg, the amount of radioactivity floating around the area is such that people will go on dying for years and no CD Corps will be able to stop that. CD is a deception of the people and we want no part of it.”
The North London Press reported: “Councillor Lawrence pointed out, in answer to a question, that CD in the past had cost the council just under £2000. The government had paid the rest of the cost – about £5000. ‘The bill will be at least £7000’, he said. ‘It might be very much more.’ He paused, chuckled, and said: ‘But we haven’t paid it yet.’ A voice at the front of the hall: ‘What happens if you don’t pay?’ Councillor Lawrence: ‘If we don’t pay it, the government comes and takes it out of us somehow. But as we haven’t got much which can be taken from us, presumably we will go to the Scrubs or Pentonville. What I want to know is – if we don’t pay, will you back us up?’ There were cries of ‘Yes’ and for more than two minutes the audience cheered their approval of this suggestion. Said Councillor Lawrence: ‘That’s all I wanted to know’.”
The event which prompted Transport House’s first intervention into the local Labour Party occurred in January 1958. At that month’s meeting of the Holborn and St Pancras South general management committee, a resolution was narrowly passed which censured maverick right-winger and local party member Woodrow Wyatt for his participation in a BBC TV Panorama programme broadcast in November 1957. The programme had made allegations (well-founded ones, it later turned out) of ballot-rigging in the Communist-controlled Electrical Trades Union following Les Cannon’s defeat by CP member Jack Frazer in an election to the ETU executive. Complaints had been raised previously within the South Party about Wyatt’s attacks on “Communist infiltration” in the trade unions, and for the CP-sympathising left in the party this latest exercise in red-baiting was the final straw.
The resolution adopted at the January GMC further called on the National Executive Committee to remove Wyatt from the approved list of possible parliamentary candidates – which turned out to be a bit of a shot in the foot by the left. For although the NEC agreed to meet a delegation from the GMC the following week, it completely rejected their arguments and issued a statement repudiating the attack on Wyatt and refusing to remove him from the panel of candidates. Press reports also indicated that the NEC intended to investigate both the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party and the St Pancras Labour Group. The GMC of the South Party in February was attended by a Transport House official, who disqualified 21 left wing trade union delegates on the grounds that they were not resident in the constituency – even though the NEC itself had previously waived the residency qualification in recognition of the fact that many trade unionists worked and met in the constituency but did not live there.
The NEC was no doubt encouraged in its determination to do something about the St Pancras situation by a much-publicised incident on 24 February at Holborn Hall in Gray’s Inn Road, when Henry Brooke MP, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, addressed a meeting organised by Holborn and St Pancras Conservative Association on the subject of the Rent Act. More than 500 people attended the meeting, a large proportion of them supporters of the Holborn and St Pancras Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee intent on showing their feelings about the Tory government’s anti-working class legislation. Leaflets headed “Minister of Evictions” and “Crocodile Tears from Henry Brooke” were distributed by the Committee. While Brooke was tried to deliver his speech there was a continual chanting and stamping of feet and shouts of “Resign”, while coloured balloons bearing various anti-Tory slogans were released.
Eventually the Tory minister gave up trying to make himself heard above the uproar and invited questions from the audience. He had time to take only one before the meeting descended into total chaos. “There was a clash between the activists on the floor and the fascists, which resulted in a bundle”, Charlie Taylor recalls, “and the stage was stormed. I think Bernie Holland excelled himself there. He put a chair over one of the fascists’ heads, who’d punched him. Anyway the meeting ended in disarray. The dignified Tories retired to a back room, and we took over. And then the police arrived, cleared us all out.” Brooke was escorted through a side door by six policemen to his car. Before leaving for the House of Commons, he told the press: “This shows the depths of what would happen if Communists ever came to control this country.”
The incident was played up in the national papers as an example of political hooliganism by the left, and the Daily Mirror devoted its front page to the incident, featuring a photograph with Bernie Holland grappling with a fascist. Lena Jeger, the Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras South, was prevailed on to make an apology to Henry Brooke in the House of Commons. In reality, despite the chaotic scenes, nobody was seriously hurt and no arrests were made. After it was all over, the protestors went round the corner to the Bourne Estate, where Lawrence addressed an open-air meeting on the Rent Act along with Jock Nicolson, the Communist candidate for North St Pancras in the forthcoming London County Council elections.
This is the second part of a serialised article, begun in the last issue of What Next?, which examines the activities of the political tendency led by John Lawrence. The article concentrates on their work in St Pancras Labour Party in the late 1950s, centring on the controversial decision to fly the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall on May Day 1958.
THE CONFRONTATIONAL style of politics pursued by John Lawrence and his comrades on St Pancras Borough Council was not at all popular with some sections of the local party, and at meetings of the Holborn and St Pancras South general management committee the left usually managed to win only a narrow majority in support of their policies. But the flying of the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall was one of the least contentious of the council’s decisions, at least as far as the party itself was concerned.
George Wagner, one of Lawrence’s fiercest critics at that time, later recalled that the proposal was one “which by and large the party voted for. I voted for it too”. Indeed, though John Lawrence was to gain notoriety in the capitalist press as “the man who flew the Red Flag”, it seems that the original proposal came from 70-year-old Tom Barker, a socialist who had no Trotskyist background (although in his youth he had been an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World). In any case, in the normal run of things it would scarcely have been a major issue that a Labour council should propose to fly the Red Flag, the emblem of the labour movement, over the Town Hall on May Day.
However, as a symbol of a Labour council pursuing a strategy of open confrontation with the Tory government, under the leadership of men and women some of whom had evident ideological sympathies with the Communist Party, the decision to raise the Red Flag provoked outrage in the press.
The issue of the St Pancras Chronicle which reported the council debate on the May Day proposals featured boxed statements on its front page condemning the decision. Tory leader Timothy Donovan was reported as predicting disorder if the flying of the Red Flag went ahead. The Reverend Hector Morgan, vicar of St Luke’s and St Paul’s Church in Kentish Town, and chaplain to the British Legion, was also quoted. “To some of us who have seen men die for the Union Jack and all that it stands for”, he pontificated, “this is a sacrilegious insult. We in the Church have a sense of loyalty to the Crown and nation and so, in the strongest possible terms, we dissociate ourselves from this latest attempt to bulldoze the neo-Communists into public life. It may be a good thing if every loyal subject of the British Crown in St Pancras district puts out the Union Jack on May Day just to show what a minority follows the blood-soaked banner of the neo-Communists.”
A third featured statement was from the St Pancras branch of the Union Movement. “Some left wing councillors”, the Mosleyites declared, “have yet to learn that St Pancras is not a suburb of Moscow. The British people will make that clear before long.” How the fascists themselves intended to make it clear was revealed in a letter sent to John Lawrence shortly afterwards. “You are a traitor to your country”, it read, “and we shall get rid of you and your bloody pals very quickly. There is nothing more certain than that. We just give you warning. It will be done very quickly and very suddenly, so watch your step.”
The North London Press, for its part, pompously editorialised against the decision to fly the Red Flag. “The proposal was, from the start, provocative and designed to engender heated controversy”, it opined. “In this it succeeded and Councillor John Lawrence, leader of the council and arch-publicist for the loudly-left, can paste another bunch of newspaper cuttings in his scrap-book.” The paper was particularly indignant that all this had taken place “in the very week of the climax of the borough’s arts festival, an event which has slowly and painstakingly tried to build up prestige of a worthwhile kind locally”.
Ominously, the same issue of the North London Press reported that the Labour Party NEC was going ahead with its plans for an inquiry into the local party: “Some of the recent escapades of Councillor John Lawrence, leader of the left wing faction, have alarmed the party chiefs. They blame Councillor Lawrence’s followers for the recent fracas at Holborn Hall when Mr Henry Brooke, Housing Minister, was forced to abandon his meeting.” The NEC was supposedly concerned that “the extreme left wing antics and policies of the controlling faction on St Pancras Borough Council may result in the loss of the narrowly-held Holborn and St Pancras South seat at the general election”. At the 1955 election, Lena Jeger had held the seat by only 931 votes.
During the London County Council elections of April 1958 the Tories made the Red Flag issue the centre of their campaign in Holborn and St Pancras South. In an attempt to play the patriotic card, they produced a glossy leaflet headed “St George for England! St Pancras for Russia?” and printed in three colours – red, white and blue. “St Pancras Borough Council are flying the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May 1st”, the leaflet announced. “The Socialist Leader of the Council wants to see it flying over Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. Would you like to have it flying over your block of flats? The Union Jack was torn from the platform and trodden underfoot by these same St Pancras Socialists when they led a riot at a recent Public Meeting in Holborn addressed by the Minister of Housing. By disbanding Civil Defence in the Borough these Socialists have involved the ratepayers in unnecessary expenditure to the tune of £6,000. How long are you prepared to allow this to go on? The St Pancras Socialists are doing the Russians’ work for them. Their candidates would do the same at County Hall if elected to the LCC. Is that what you want from a local authority?” The leaflet concluded with an appeal to the electors to “register your protest against these unBritish activities” by voting for the three Tory candidates.
The outcome of the election should have scotched the idea that a militant stance by a Labour council would lose the party electoral support. Despite the Tories’ efforts to whip up anti-communist feeling among the voters, Labour succeeded – for the first time ever – in winning all three seats in Holborn and St Pancras South from the Conservatives. At the count when the results were announced, it was reported, “exultant cheers from a predominantly Labour public gallery heralded the Conservative eclipse. Triumphant socialist supporters broke into singing the Red Flag“.
By this time the national press was showing a keen interest in the scandalous state of affairs in St Pancras. The Sunday Times published an article on the Red Flag affair, detailing the crimes (denying the Tories their aldermanic seats, reducing rents, cutting the mayor’s allowance and opposing Civil Defence) that the St Pancras Labour Group had committed since the left had taken control. “Before 1956, there were some very able councillors”, Tory leader Donovan was quoted as saying. “You couldn’t tell the difference between Socialists and Conservatives.” “Well you can tell the difference now”, was Lawrence’s retort. “We were elected to do Socialist things. We intend to use the council to inspire in ordinary people the hatred and contempt for capitalist society we feel ourselves. I think, with Marx, that you need a revolution to get rid of the privileged classes and the muck of ages in men’s minds.” It was because it had carried out such a revolution, Lawrence added, that Russia was “the number one country today”. The question was put to him: why then didn’t he join the Communist Party? Lawrence answered that if he lived in France or Italy he would indeed join the Communists, but he didn’t intend to do so in Britain. “Why should I leave a big party to join a small party?” he asked. “I want to get things done.”
At the monthly council meeting on April 30, the Tories made a final, vain attempt to stop the May Day celebration, presenting a petition with 1,510 signatures protesting at the decision to fly the Red Flag. “We know this is not promoted by the Labour Group in the borough but by a Communist faction within it”, stated Tory leader Donovan, to protests from the Labour Group. It was common knowledge, the Tory chief whip Paul Prior chimed in, that Lawrence was “an avowed and committed Communist”, and Prior challenged the council leader to resign and stand for re-election “as an out-and-out Communist and see what happens”.
Speaking for the Labour majority, Alderman Charles Taylor condemned the disgraceful coverage of the issue by the St Pancras Chronicle. In particular he attacked the decision to feature on the paper’s front page a statement by the Union Movement, without any indication of the political character of that organisation. “Here we have a paper which claims to be non-party and impartial”, Taylor angrily declared, “and yet it can devote a box to a statement from such an organisation as the Unionists. Is this not the fascist movement of Sir Oswald Mosley?” he demanded, amid loud commotion from the public galleries. “As a result of all this whipping up of public hatred”, Taylor continued, “the leader of this council has been threatened with personal violence.” To this a Tory councillor, one Mrs Arabin, responded: “It would do him good.” When the resulting uproar had subsided, the mayor insisted that Mrs Arabin should withdraw the remark. This she did, explaining that she had been “carried away by the atmosphere of the debate”.
In his own contribution, answering Tory charges that he was a Communist, John Lawrence readily conceded the accuracy of the statement attributed to him in the Sunday Times. “I would join the Communist Party if I lived in France or Italy”, he explained, “because in those countries it is the party of the workers. But in England, it is the Socialist Party and so long as the Labour Party permits me to express my views and lets me do the things I want to do, I have no intention of leaving it.” He added that for him Russia had always been and would always be “the number one country”.
Lawrence dismissed the idea that the flying of the Red Flag was opposed by the people of St Pancras. Producing the Conservative leaflet issued during the LCC elections, he pointed out that the Tories had fought the seats in Holborn and St Pancras South on the issue of the Red Flag. “See what it says”, he declared, brandishing the leaflet, “St George for England and St Pancras for Russia, and it shows a Red Flag and a Union Jack. What was the result? The electors threw you out of office, all three of you.” There was a lot of nonsense talked about the Red Flag, Lawrence added – it simply stood for socialism. “Concluding the debate”, the St Pancras Chronicle reported, “Councillor Donovan said that if Councillor Lawrence felt that Russia was such a great and glorious power, he hoped he would not hesitate to go there.”
In the guise of local businessmen and clergymen, the Tories appealed to the Commissioner of Police to intervene and prevent the Red Flag being flown. Not, you understand, as an exercise in political suppression, but because “grave breaches of the peace might arise” through street conflicts between communists and fascists. The capitalist press for its part stepped up the witch-hunt against St Pancras Council in cooperation with the local Tories. John Lawrence was identified as the chief villain. Not only did he want the Red Flag to fly over Buckingham Palace, the Evening Standard revealed, “he is also of the opinion that the Queen could live ‘somewhere quietly in the country’ so that some of the rooms at Buckingham Palace could be used to house ‘people who are overcrowded’.”
“Communists in the council?” replied Councillor Donovan in response to a question from a Standard reporter. “Of course there are Communists in the council. Naturally they will not wave a party membership card in front of you, but there are Communists there, even if they won’t admit it. The discipline imposed by the Communist leaders here is so strict that the non-Communist Socialist council member has to toe the party line whether he likes it or not.”
Donovan continued: “Look at the support I am getting from the people of the borough. Every day letters and telephone calls reach me at my office or at the Town Hall, protesting about the red influence of that stupid flag. Many of the protests come from people living in council flats. But one 17-year-old youth has given me a petition with 3000 names on it. The signatories want me to pull down the Red Flag and put back the Union Jack. I wish I could. But, ironically, the law is on the side of Lawrence and his party. They have had a police superintendent patrolling the Town Hall checking up on possible entries to the roof where the flagpole is. It seems”, Donovan concluded regretfully, “that it is against the law for anyone to tear down the Red Flag and replace it with the Union Jack.”
More extreme right-wingers did not hesitate to take direct action, however. Late on the evening of April 29, a car-load of men arrived outside St Pancras Town Hall and daubed some twenty red hammer-and-sickles on the white stonework. John Lawrence told the Communist Party paper the Daily Worker that the graffiti was the work of fascists. “But, despite this, we shall fly the Red Flag”, he said. “It is the flag of Labour which has flown over Labour demonstrations for 100 years.” Inside the Town Hall phones were ringing as the newspapers followed up the story. Had any of the staff refused to take the day off, journalists wanted to know. This produced much amusement among the staff themselves. “Refuse a day off?” one replied. “We’re not daft.”
On May Day itself the media was out in force. “Events began to take shape at 6.30am in the almost deserted Euston Road”, according to the St Pancras Chronicle report, “when more than 50 newsreel, television and national newspaper cameramen took up strategic positions on the roadway at the top of the steps leading down from St Pancras Station. From this vantage point they and some 30 reporters obtained a first-class view of the roof top events that made St Pancras front page news throughout the country. At 7.20am Councillor John Lawrence, leader of the council, stepped on to the small roof beside the flagpole at the eastern end of the Town Hall, together with several of his supporters. At 7.24am Councillor Lawrence hauled the flag to the top of the mast. He looked over the balustrade and waved cheerily to the massed batteries of whirring cameras on the station terrace below, and then left the roof. Railwaymen and taxicab drivers cheered as the flag reached the top of the mast, fluttered slightly in the light morning breeze, and then hung limply beside the flag pole.”
“After the Red Flag had been hoisted”, the Evening News reported, “white-bearded Albert Roche, 62, of Clerkenwell, walked slowly round St Pancras Town Hall carrying a wooden cross and a rosary. At the main entrance he stopped and sprinkled the steps with holy water ‘to sanctify them’.” Meanwhile, just down the Euston Road in Ossulston Street, where St Pancras Trades Council was due to hold a meeting at lunchtime in solidarity with the council’s action, the Union Movement was busy setting up its own platform flanked by two Union Jacks, and with a placard denouncing the flying of the Red Flag.
“As the lunch hour approached”, the Chronicle report continued, “lorry-loads of police were unobtrusively unloaded in the St Pancras goods yard, and mounted police patrolled in Euston Road in readiness for any disorder. In Ossulston Street, NW1, the May Day rally organised by the Holborn and St Pancras Trades Council opened in strength. Barely three yards away was another platform from which Unionist members were speaking. With a large lunchtime audience the atmosphere became electric as the rival speakers declaimed each other. Hecklers were busy, and quietly the police moved up.”
Superintendent Paul Beresford, who was in charge of the operation, asked both organisations to close their meetings, and the fascists, satisfied with having achieved their objective of disrupting the trades council’s meeting, were happy to agree. But the trades council and their supporters, understandably, were not to be swayed. “We’ve police permission to be here, and we shall hold this meeting”, Lawrence told Beresford, “and we shall not be deterred by a bunch of fascists.” Mounting the trades council platform to begin his speech, his trademark red tie flapping in the breeze, Lawrence smilingly asked his audience for their verdict. Should they cancel the meeting or carry on? “Carry on!” was the overwhelming response.
In the middle of his speech Lawrence was suddenly seized from behind by the police and pulled to the ground. The trades council secretary, Councillor Stewart Phelan, then tried to mount the platform and he was immediately seized as well. “The police arrested everybody who stood on the platform and started speaking”, David Goldhill recalls. “The rest of us just filled in. As soon as one person was arrested and was pulled off the platform, somebody else stood up and started speaking. We just kept the meeting going and were pulled off one at a time.”
According to the North London Press account: “It took six policemen to hold Councillor Lawrence, who struggled the whole of the 150 yards to the waiting Black Maria in the nearby yard of the potato market. It took many more police to drag struggling Councillor David Goldhill, Bernie Holland and other speakers to the Black Maria as well. During the struggle Lawrence, Goldhill and Holland fell on the roadway. I saw one policeman drag Bernie Holland to his feet by his hair. Mounted police, who had remained hidden in the yard at the potato market, rode out into Ossulston Square and lined the pavements in readiness for any further trouble.”
The police action was received with shouts of “thugs”, “fascists” and “Gestapo men” from the crowd. Some of them began to sing the Red Flag in protest. They too were arrested and hauled off to the waiting police vans. Only Lena Jeger was allowed to make a brief speech from the trades council platform; presumably the police felt that it would be going too far to arrest a Member of Parliament. The fascists tried to drown her out with chants of “The reds, the reds, we’re going to get rid of the reds” – unhindered, needless to say, by the police.
By the evening those arrested had been released on bail and the meeting was resumed with a much larger crowd. At 8.15 the Red Flag was lowered to loud cheers, while one dissenting right-winger shook her fist at the disappearing flag, to the amusement of those nearby. “May Day, 1958”, the St Pancras Chronicle commented, “will long be remembered by the 140,000 residents of St Pancras as one of the most exciting days in the borough’s history. For the Leftists, the raising of the Red Flag over the Town Hall in Euston Road, NW1, was a proud achievement. Right wing sympathisers saw the day as one of grim significance. As the police superintendent told this journal, as the flag was being hauled down in the evening, ‘There’s not been a dull moment’.”
Of the arrested socialists, John Lawrence and Stewart Phelan were charged with assault, Bernie Holland with threatening behaviour and the others with obstruction, even though in some instances there was enough evidence for more serious charges. Holland relates that he was arrested after punching one of the policemen who had seized John Lawrence, but the sergeant at Caledonian Road police station told the arresting officer: “We can’t charge a little bloke like that with assault on the police. We’d look stupid”! According to David Goldhill, the police “found they’d grabbed a brace of councillors, the deputy mayor of St Pancras and the secretary of the trades council, and they were a bit worried about the whole thing, and they played it down. They could have done me with assault on the police, because I remember somebody grabbed Bernie and they dragged him off and I grabbed the constable who was dragging him, so they could easily have made a more serious thing of it”.
The socialists arrested at Ossulston Street were brought to court the following day, but despite their protests and insistence on being tried then and there they were remanded on bail. Two fascists who had been involved in a scuffle with a left-winger on Euston Road were bound over to keep the peace. But the magistrate took a dimmer view of four other men whose cases were dealt with that day. They had been arrested outside the Town Hall itself, where some 20 right-wing students waving Union Jacks had been staging their own protest against St Pancras Borough Council. A Police Constable Bashforth told the court that a discussion between the defendants about the Red Flag had provoked the students, who “began advancing menacingly” towards them. The police had immediately arrested, not the menacingly-advancing students, but the four men being threatened, who were then charged with “using insulting words whereby a breach of the peace might have been occasioned”.
PC Bashforth recounted how one of the defendants, railway worker George Courthold, had stated in a loud voice: “Why can’t you do something to stop these chaps waving that Union Jack about. I am surprised you stand for it, but I am glad to see the Red Flag’s flying. Doesn’t it look good.” In evidence, Mr Courthold explained that he had been returning to work after buying some cakes for his lunch when “I heard this coloured chap say something about the Red Flag and I said ‘What’s good about it? They ought to put the Union Jack up’. Communism stinks as far as I am concerned. When you are having a friendly argument and you suddenly find yourself in the back of a Black Maria you start thinking”. The magistrate acquitted Courthold, but he found against the other three defendants on the grounds that their outspoken support for the Red Flag would have offended “anybody who is loyal and patriotic”.
The case against Lawrence, Goldhill, Bernie Holland and Stewart Phelan came to court on 9 May. John Lawrence told the court that the police “were all fluttering about like a lot of angry hens. I didn’t take them seriously”. He had been grabbed from behind as he was speaking from the rostrum, swung in the air “and landed crash on my backside”. There had been no disorder before the police intervened and he had seen “much rowdier meetings than that”. In cross-examination the police solicitor suggested that Lawrence had been annoyed by the Union Movement setting up their platform. “Fascists always annoy me”, Lawrence retorted. Stephen Preston, a journalist who appeared as a witness for the defence, said he had seen Councillor Phelan seized “in the most brutal and unpleasant manner and I was horrified at the violence used. I saw a police officer strike him a most vicious blow in the mouth”. He described how Phelan was tossed into the police van “like a sack of potatoes”. Another defence witness, Painters’ Union official Pat Dowling, when asked if Councillor Phelan had assaulted the police, replied: “If you have got four or five policemen jumping on you, you don’t have much of an opportunity of assaulting the police.”
Stanley Moore, defending, said that it had been well known throughout London, and even nationally, that the trades council meeting was to take place. What was more, the police had been notified and a letter received from the commissioner confirming this. The fascists had never held a meeting in Ossulston Street before and had only gone there in order to cause a provocation. But the defendants had stated that they had no intention of being provoked, and Bernie Holland had actually told the crowd to take no notice of the fascist speaker and to turn their backs on him. Moore produced press photographs showing that this was, in fact, what the crowd had done.
Those in charge of the police had no intention of allowing the trades council meeting to take place, Moore suggested. He submitted that nothing had occurred likely to cause a breach of the peace before the police intervened. The defendants admitted that they did not comply with the request by the police to stop the meeting because they considered it an unreasonable one. The police had laid “violent hands” on these people, Moore stated. It was quite ridiculous, as the police alleged, that Mr Holland had run towards the Union Movement meeting shouting: “Kill the fascists.” Actually he was going away from the fascists and running towards Councillor Lawrence and the police. Moore submitted that the police officers had given “completely dishonest evidence” against Councillor Phelan, and he emphasised that no breach of the peace had occurred. In the outcome, assault charges against Lawrence and Phelan were dismissed, but they were fined £5 each with three guineas costs for obstruction. David Goldhill was fined £3 for the same offence, while Bernie Holland was fined £2 for threatening behaviour.
Five further cases of obstructing the police were heard on 23 May. One of these was Hilda Lane, who told the court that she had made an announcement about the evening meeting, with the agreement of a police officer, and was then arrested. Others were arrested for the crime of singing the Red Flag. Ray Bernard, one of the accused, told the court: “The police told us to move on and to get the rostrum out of the way. We moved it into the forecourt of a block of flats. Several groups of people were standing about and somebody started to sing the Red Flag. We all joined in and before we knew where we were, we were in the police van.” A police witness, one Sergeant Henderson, justified the arrests on the grounds that the Red Flag was sung “more or less in defiance of the police”. All five were found guilty of obstruction. As they left the dock, one of the defendants, Catherine Duffy, shouted at the police: “This is the last time I will help you coppers. You have had it now, you lot.”
TRANSPORT HOUSE now made their move against John Lawrence and his comrades. But instead of launching the threatened inquiry into St Pancras Labour Group and the Holborn and St Pancras South CLP, the NEC liaised with Lawrence’s opponents in the South Party to try and oust him. This was in fact a common procedure when the NEC moved to attack troublesome left-wingers. As Eric Shaw notes in his book Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party, a sympathetic study of the Labour leadership’s witch-hunting practices, “the NEC was reluctant to initiate intervention – it preferred to respond to local requests for assistance. But these “local requests” were in fact often inspired by officials”. Indeed, on May 1 every St Pancras Labour councillor had received a letter from Morgan Phillips marked “private and confidential” inviting them to provide information to the NEC.
Although Lawrence had a comfortable majority in the Labour Group, his position was less secure in Holborn and St Pancras South CLP, where there was in fact considerable opposition to what was seen as a Trotskyist takeover of the party. George Wagner later described the attitude of the anti-Lawrence faction: “Suddenly we had these groups of Trotskyites popping up all over the place, and we got suddenly a lot of affiliations of trade union branches. I think we had something like 45 affiliations to the constituency party, which changed the voting pattern at the management committee considerably. And quite a number of the wards had acquired members who were either slowly moving in here or who had been converted by the local Trotskyite talent.” Wagner charged the Lawrence group with “playing at a revolutionary situation that wasn’t there” and committing the Labour Group and the CLP to actions which took them outside the law. He also held Lawrence and his supporters responsible for embittering the atmosphere in the party with their attacks on political opponents: “One of the things which was from the word go a potential deadly poison in the whole period of Trotskyite leadership was the absolutely abominable personal relations.”
The problem for Lawrence’s opponents was that they had never managed to get a clear majority on the GMC. After the disqualification in February of 21 trade union delegates, however, the position of the anti-Lawrence faction was considerably strengthened, and at the next month’s AGM George Wagner had succeeded in displacing Hilda Lane as constituency secretary. The time seemed ripe for a challenge to Lawrence. At the monthly meeting of the GMC on 15 May, therefore, one of the wards proposed the following motion: “In view of the activities of John Lawrence which continue to discredit the Labour Party, this General Management Committee of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party resolves to expel him from membership.” Not surprisingly, this resulted in a fierce debate. But Lawrence’s opponents still couldn’t get a majority for his expulsion. After two and a half hours of angry argument, the motion was defeated by 35 votes to 33.
On 17 May, twenty seven prominent members of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party, headed by George Wagner and the constituency vice-chairman Tom McKitterick, sent a letter to the NEC inviting it to step in and overturn the GMC’s decision. The letter stated:
“For some years there has been active inside the Party an organised group of which the leading members are Councillors John Lawrence, Hilda Lane and David Goldhill. This group has consistently obstructed the proper conduct of Party business, has forced the Party into actions and decisions of which a large part of the membership disapproves, and has by many of its public activities brought discredit on the Party locally and nationally. This group is part of a network of similar groups in other parties (e.g. in Norwood) [in fact, the left in Norwood CLP was dominated by adherents of Lawrence’s bitter enemy, Gerry Healy!], and is strongly believed to have links with organisations outside the Labour Party. Because of its activities and behaviour, many members and supporters are discouraged from playing their full part in the work of the Party. Membership is considerably smaller than it should be, and the Party is prevented from functioning as an effective political and electoral organisation. Unless this state of affairs can be improved, our small parliamentary majority may be endangered.
“The main heads of our complaint against the group are as follows; we are prepared to support these charges with detailed statements:
“1. Their policy follows at all times that of the Communist Party. They have made it clear by word and action that they do not believe in democratic methods, but are prepared to resort to any means to achieve their ends.
“2. They have forced this Party into support of dissident groups, in Norwood, Peckham, Hammersmith and elsewhere; they have forced it to contribute to doubtful causes and persons even at times when essential Party work was curtailed from lack of funds.
“3. They have established a rigid control of Wards 6 and 7 of St Pancras and of the Holborn Co-operative Party, and have used these organisations and a number of trade union affiliations to pack the General Management Committee with their supporters.
“4. In 1956 they used their voting strength to prevent the selection as municipal candidates of a number of sitting members of the St Pancras Borough Council, in order to make way for their own nominees. They subsequently forced the resignation of the leader and chief whip of the Labour Group, and have since exploited the Group for their own propaganda purposes.
“5. In the General Management Committee, they resort to noisy interruptions and intimidation of delegates.
“6. They sponsored the formation of the Holborn and St Pancras Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee as a means of associating the Communist Party with the Labour Party’s opposition to the Rent Acts. On a recent occasion Councillor Lawrence, as chairman of the Committee, appeared on a platform arranged by this Committee with a man named Nicholson, even though the said Nicholson was known to be standing as Communist candidate for the London County Council in North St Pancras.
“7. They organised the breaking up of a meeting on 24th February in the Holborn Hall addressed by Mr Henry Brooke, and members of the group have been involved in other acts of public violence.
“8. On 15th May the General Management Committee discussed a resolution from a ward demanding the expulsion of Councillor Lawrence. Throughout the meeting they behaved as a closely disciplined group and at first attempted to prevent discussion; they later tried to prevent a ballot vote from being taken, admitting that their aim was to intimidate delegates. In spite of this, and in spite of the unrepresentative composition of the General Management Committee, the resolution was lost by the narrow margin of 35 to 33.
“These are only instances of the behaviour to which we object. For several years the rest of the Party (which has, after all, a long radical tradition) has accepted many things unwillingly in order to achieve unity; discussion of issues on their merits has become almost impossible. We hoped that a change might be brought about by normal means. We have now regretfully decided that this is unlikely, and that the present state of affairs can be tolerated no longer. We can assure you that there will be a substantial body of opinion inside the Party ready to support any action the National Executive Committee may decide to take to improve matters.
“All the signatories of this letter are prepared to allow their names to be used openly.”
On 21 May, the NEC announced that John Lawrence had been suspended from membership of the Labour Party. At a press conference the party secretary Morgan Phillips stated that he had been asked some time ago to conduct an inquiry into the affairs of the Labour Group on St Pancras Council, and had delayed taking action only because of the imminence of the LCC elections. Phillips justified Lawrence’s suspension on the grounds that there had been complaints from members of the South Party (“presumably”, Tribune commented, “from people who had just seen the democratic decision go the other way”). A letter from Morgan Phillips to Lawrence explained that he had been suspended because his “general activities and views” were “inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known Communists”.
Commenting to the press on Phillips’ letter, Lawrence replied: “We have flown the Red Flag. Does that make me a Communist? We have done away with Civil Defence. Does that make me a Communist? We have not put up our rents. Does that make me a Communist?” Lawrence added that for the time being he supposed he would have to sit on the borough council as an Independent Labour representative, and would consider standing as such in the next borough council elections, if his appeal against the decision of the National Executive was rejected.
The NEC’s action against Lawrence was accompanied by the announcement that the whole of the South Party had been suspended and was to be reorganised. “I suspect that means it will be reorganised without me”, Lawrence observed. “I consider I have been treated very shabbily and I suppose it is mainly because I flew the Red Flag on May Day. If it is because of that then it is a grave reflection on the present executive of the Labour Party.” An NEC spokesman commented smugly: “I think this sets a precedent. We have certainly suspended members before, but I don’t think we have suspended a whole constituency before.” As David Goldhill recounts: “They simply dissolved the whole party, including the MP, for about a week. Even Lena Jeger wasn’t a member of the Labour Party! They struck the entire party out. It disappeared.”
At meeting on the evening of 21 May, immediately following the NEC’s announcement of Lawrence’s suspension, the Labour Group had retained him as leader. They also sent a letter to Morgan Phillips complaining of the lack of “specific charges” against Lawrence and asking for a meeting with the NEC. This request was turned down. In the face of the NEC’s intransigence, and fearing that defiance would lead to disciplinary action against themselves, many of the councillors began to waver. At a special meeting of the Group on 28 May, the Labour whip, Jock Stallard, put up a motion that the Group should “reaffirm John Lawrence as the leader of a united Labour Group until such time as the NEC can convince us that his views and activities – which the majority of us have supported – are incompatible with membership of the Labour party”. This was voted down by 23 votes to 15, and Lawrence was then removed as leader and Charles Ratchford elected in his place.
Fourteen councillors refused to accept this decision, condemning it as a betrayal of a comrade who was being victimised for pursuing policies which the entire Group had supported, and they walked out of the meeting in protest. They later issued a statement signed by Jock Stallard and the Labour Group secretary David Goldhill which asserted that they were “not an independent group. We are a Labour Group fighting for socialist policies and fighting against dictatorial interference by the NEC”. In practice, however, the minority did constitute itself as a separate group on the council, with John Lawrence as leader. This new formation became known as the Independent Socialist Group.
This is the third part of a study of the political tendency headed by John Lawrence. It deals with the activities of the group in St Pancras Labour Party in the late 1950s, centring on the controversial decision to fly the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May Day 1958, an action which led to Lawrence’s suspension from the Labour Party.
THE LETTER from Morgan Phillips informing Lawrence that he was suspended from the Labour Party had invited him to “make such representations as you think desirable” while the NEC was considering what further steps to take. Lawrence wrote back pointing out that Phillips’ letter contained no specific charges and asked the NEC to provide details of the “activities and views” which had led to his suspension. On 3 June, Morgan Phillips sent the following reply, containing allegations against Lawrence which were taken almost word for word from the letter sent by members of the South Party a few weeks earlier:
“You will recall that in my letter I indicated that your general activities and views were believed to be inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known Communists. As you know, you were for many years a member of the Communist Party and of the Revolutionary Communist Party. When this was dissolved in 1949, you entered the Labour Party to pursue the policy of the RCP. You later became associated with Socialist Fellowship and editor of Socialist Outlook, both of which were proscribed by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. You were a member of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Tenants and Residents and launched the Holborn and St Pancras United Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee, in which Communists play an active part. Several meetings have been organised in which prominent Communist speakers participated, and one of which was as recent as 25 March at the outset of the London County Council campaign when one of the people speaking with you was the Communist candidate for the LCC in the North St Pancras Division.
“During recent years and months, your public declarations reveal you have little in common with democratic socialism, so much so that when asked whether you intended to rejoin the Communist Party, your answer was ‘Why should I leave a big party to join a small one? I want to get things done’. There is not hint of any difference of opinion with the Communist Party: indeed, on a subsequent occasion, you made it clear that ‘There is not much difference between socialism and communism’.
“Furthermore, we have received over a period of time a number of serious complaints from within the constituency. Among these are the following: that you have led an organised group within the party and many people have expressed themselves as feeling that the policy of this group follows, at all times, that of the Communist Party; that, indeed, it has been clear both by word and action that the group as such does not believe in democratic methods, with the result that the Labour Party is considerably smaller than it should be and is prevented from functioning as an effective political and electoral organisation. It has been forced to contribute to doubtful causes and persons even at times when essential party work was curtailed from lack of funds. This organised group was successful in 1956 in preventing the selection as municipal candidates of a number of sitting members of the borough council who were replaced by the nominees of your group. Subsequently, the resignation of the leader and chief whip of the Group was brought about.
“In the General Management Committee of the party there are noisy interruptions and a distinct feeling that attempts have been made to intimidate delegates. For example, at the meeting on 15 May, the people associated with you behaved as a closely disciplined group which at first attempted to prevent discussion and later tried to prevent a ballot vote being taken. They demanded a roll call indicating that this was required for future purposes. This, as you will recall, was on a motion demanding your expulsion from the local party.
“Other instances of the declarations of your views could be given if necessary, but I think I have said sufficient to amplify the point made in my original letter that they do appear to be inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party. I need hardly say that we have received substantial representations from within the constituency from people who have been greatly disturbed by the situation and who have asked the National Executive Committee for assistance to reorganise the party in a manner which would enable it to serve its democratic socialist purpose. I shall be glad to have your observations in writing at your earliest convenience.”
On 14 June Lawrence sent the NEC a long letter justifying his conduct and rejecting the accusations against him:
“There is nothing in the letter of Mr Morgan Phillips which justifies your decision to suspend me from membership. I deny absolutely the allegations made against me. I am informed that the NEC believes that my general activities and views are ’inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known communists’. This allegation is based on my political record stemming back twenty years, one single quotation from the Sunday Times, and a lot of inner-party gossip conveyed to you, on your own admission, by people who failed to carry through my expulsion in open debate. On this flimsy evidence you have removed me from the Labour Group of St Pancras Borough Council which had, only a few weeks before, re-elected me its Leader for the third year in succession, and you have ’re-organised’ my local Labour Party by excluding from membership most of its Left Wing.
“The national press, and the local Tories, have hailed your attack on me and the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party as a public repudiation of the socialist activities of the St Pancras Borough Council. These gentlemen have all along claimed that the Council’s decision not to participate in the farce of Civil Defence, our refusal to raise rents despite the threat of a surcharge, and our flying of the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May Day, were activities inspired by communists and communist views. The day after my suspension the London Star headed its editorial on the subject with the one word ‘disowned’. The London Evening News was more specific with: ’Red Flag Lowered in St Pancras.’
“The press has at least judged us on what we have done. They know, as you know, that I do not write books nor produce a regular column in the Sunday newspapers. My views must, therefore, be expressed through my practical activities, in particular in pursuance of those council policies which I have helped to formulate. If my views are communist then that fact could easily be established in my activities. You have omitted all reference to these activities and that, in my opinion, is the most significant thing in the whole of Morgan Phillips’ lengthy letter.
“The one statement you produce in evidence of my communist views proves, if it proves anything at all, the opposite. I said that I am in the Labour Party because it is a big party and I want to get things done, and I don’t think there is much difference between socialism and communism. I once heard Aneurin Bevan say much the same thing. He said, at a public meeting, that were he Chinese he would be in the Chinese Communist Party for the same reason that, being British, he is in the Labour Party – because both these parties are the mass parties of the workers and could get things done. It would seem that if Mr Bevan would work for communism in China or socialism in Britain, he doesn’t think there is a lot of difference between them.
“You cite my past political record presumably to prove that I have always held communist views. In fact, that record – even in the garbled version of Mr Phillips – proves the exact opposite. The RCP was an organisation which, I now regret to say, spent most of its time attacking the communists. As I am being charged with organising a group which supports the communists, it is clear that something more than my past record is needed to prove your case.
“Anyway, you have always known about my past. Why now does it become grounds for suspension and possible expulsion? I think it is because now I am (or was until you suspended me) the leader of a borough council which has earned itself a reputation for defying the Tory government and for refusing to meekly acquiesce in Tory policy. My past political record is merely a convenient excuse to get rid of me and all who think like me. Being an ex-communist has nothing to do with it. Ex-communists voted for my expulsion when it was moved in the party, and ex-communists voted to remove me as leader of the Group. Dragging in my past membership of the Socialist Fellowship and my past editorship of Socialist Outlook is also irrelevant. Why now, after all these years, do these things become a reason for suspension? The Socialist Fellowship had thousands of members – including a lot of MPs.
“It is when you cite my admitted association with the National Association of Tenants and Residents and the Holborn and St Pancras United Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee that we get a glimpse of the real reason for my suspension. In both these organisations, you say, communists are active. So they are, as also they are active in the trade union movement. It is something to their credit. Both the organisations referred to are bodies which exist to defend tenants against the landlords and their friend, the Tory government. They are not political organisations and, as yet, they are not proscribed. They are, in fact, rather primitive associations which permit tenants of all political persuasions to unite their efforts against a common enemy. When such organisations organise public demonstrations against Mr Henry Brooke’s Rent Act, as we did in the meeting at which the communist Mr Nicolson was one of the speakers, the only condition for participation is a readiness to resist the impositions imposed on tenants by the Tory government. To infer that Labour Party members should boycott such organisations because communists are active in them is cold war socialism in all its nakedness. This is the attitude, carried to its logical conclusion, which led the French Socialist Party to support De Gaulle rather than associate with the communists in defence of democracy.
“The rest of Mr Phillips’s letter consists of a series of allegations emanating from people who are my defeated political opponents, to the effect that I have organised a group which at all times follows the Communist Party line. I deny this absolutely. I shall refute all these hysterical allegations but first, may I pose a question: Would it not have been more democratic to have sought my views on all this chit-chat before you suspended me?
“Your anonymous informants tell you that I have organised a group which makes noisy interruptions at GMC meetings and they (your informants) feel intimidated. They say we tried to prevent discussion on a motion to expel me, that we demanded an open vote instead of a secret ballot, and that we ‘forced’ the party to give money to doubtful causes and persons. I say that all this is pure, unadulterated delirium. Noisy interruptions (on all sides) are, I’m afraid to say, a feature of many political meetings – especially when someone’s expulsion is being moved! But how this constitutes ‘intimidation’ is absolutely beyond me. It is true that some comrades were so disgusted with having to discuss my expulsion so soon after the May Day incidents that they moved ‘next business’. Nothing improper in that, surely. As for the open vote versus secret ballot, there can be differences about that – but they hardly call for a wholesale ‘reorganisation’ of the party. Donations to ‘doubtful causes’? I can’t say a thing in reply to because you don’t say what those doubtful causes were. This much is certain, though. All donations from the party were agreed by majority vote. Is that what you mean by being ‘forced’?
“It is then alleged that my activities have prevented the effective political and electoral functioning of the party. Facts speak for themselves in Holborn and St Pancras South we recently gained, for the first time, all three seats on the London County Council. Next, it is alleged that this mysterious ’group’ prevented the selection of some sitting councillors as municipal candidates in 1956. The two sitting councillors concerned appeared with the others before the ward members for selection – and, after a ballot vote, came bottom of the poll. There was nothing improper about it. The ward members merely exercised their right to select candidates of their own choosing. Why is this incident raised at all? Is it because you consider that sitting councillors should sit for ever, that they are irremovable?
“Finally, I am accused of having ‘brought about the resignation of the leader and chief whip of the Labour Group’. How this amazing piece of political hypnosis was performed is not explained but, as it is the first charge which has even the remotest bearing on politics, I will, if you will bear with me, tell the story in some detail. In 1956, Labour secured a substantial majority on St Pancras Borough Council and found itself having to fill five vacant aldermanic seats. The then leader of the Group, Councillor F. Powe, JP, LCC, parliamentary candidate for Harrow Central, proposed that we give all five seats to the Tories. The Group was flabbergasted – the more so when the leader explained that this proposal was in accordance with a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ entered into by himself and the leader of the Tories. The Group refused to accept this monstrous proposal, and Councillor Powe and the Chief whip resigned. Why is this raised against me? Do you suggest that, in order to prevent these resignations we should have accepted the leader’s proposal and given five buckshee seats to the Tories?
“I have now answered truthfully all the allegations and insinuations contained in Morgan Phillips’s letter. I submit that there is no case made to justify my expulsion. If, however, you now go on to expel me, I shall appeal to the National Conference. I shall ask the party to judge whether there is anything in my public record of activities which makes me unfitted for membership.”
Not surprisingly, these arguments had little effect on Morgan Phillips and Co, and at its next meeting on 25 June the NEC expelled John Lawrence from the party. Some NEC members did raise the question of interviewing him, but Morgan Phillips dismissed this as unnecessary because Lawrence himself had not formally requested an interview. So Lawrence was thrown out without even being given the opportunity to attend the meeting to defend himself. “If this had happened on the other side of the iron curtain”, he commented on receiving the news of his expulsion, “Mr Gaitskell would have organised a meeting to protest.” Lawrence was asked if he would now join the Communist Party. “I am fighting for reinstatement to the Labour Party”, he replied. “Does that sound as if I want to join the Communists?”
As Lawrence pointed out in his letter to the NEC, Transport House was also organising a thorough purge of the South Party. “The party was dissolved”, George Wagner later recalled, “and the officers of the party were immediately taken into membership again and we were told to ‘filter out’ communists as we reorganised the party.” As the constituency secretary, Wagner played a central role in the reorganisation, in the course of which he came into conflict with the national agent Len Williams who apparently wanted to use the proceedings to cleanse the CLP of all leftist influence. “Now you could talk sense to Morgan Phillips”, Wagner observed. “We discussed how the party was going to work, and he told me we will have ward by ward meetings, where the officers can let in the others and then sort out who they take and who they don’t take. And I said to him, if you think you’re getting a right-wing party you are absolutely up the creek. We are keeping our general left-wing bearing, but of course no Trotskyites any more. And Morgan said, well that’s what I expected, I’m willing to play with that.”
As Morgan Phillips had prescribed, the party was re-established through special ward meetings which were held without notifying supporters of the Lawrence group. In the case of David Goldhill’s ward, however, a sympathiser tipped them off when the meeting was to be held. “So we all turned up at the meeting, which we weren’t meant to be invited to”, Goldhill recounted, “and we all sat in the room in Hampstead Road, the headquarters of the Holborn and South St Pancras Labour Party. And the official from Transport House said, we can no longer continue with this meeting unless you leave. We said, this is a meeting to re-form the Labour Party and we want to be members of the Labour Party, and we want to stay. He repeated his request for us to leave, and then closed the meeting. So they had another secret meeting and re-formed the ward without us. They re-formed the party with the people they wanted, not telling the people they didn’t want.” And just to make sure that no Lawrence supporters slipped through the net, all those who were readmitted were required to sign a loyalty pledge accepting and agreeing to co-operate with the NEC’s reorganisation of the party. A Tribune editorial condemned this as “the language of McCarthyism”.
Several members of the South Party were individually suspended and asked to “give reasons why they should not be expelled”. One of them was Bernie Holland, who sent an angry reply to the NEC. “I plead guilty”, he wrote, “to assisting in preventing evictions, in the formation of Tenants’ Associations and in defeating attempts to raise rents particularly through the introduction of means tests. I have fought against the deception of Civil Defence and its part in the government’s refusal to suspend nuclear tests. I helped to defend the Red Flag at St Pancras Town Hall, against the Tories and the Fascists, although we could have done with the assistance of those socialists who sing about it, once a year, at Annual Conference. In brief, along with thousands of others, I believe that actions against the Tories speak louder than words. I am grateful for having been allowed to play a part in the fight against my class enemies and I know that this fight will go on, irrespective of the desires of Mr Gaitskell and Co, until we have finally disposed of capitalism. These reasons, to Socialists, would dispel all thoughts of expulsion but no doubt will only confirm the National Executive Committee’s decision that John Lawrence and all who think like him must go.”
Another victim of the purge was Irene Goldhill, the wife of the councillor, whose not unreasonable reply to the National Executive was that “I have not yet been told by the NEC why I have been suspended, and so I find it somewhat difficult to have to explain why I should not be expelled”! Needless to say, such appeals to elementary standards of justice failed to sway the NEC, and she was thrown out along with Bernie Holland. It was, David Goldhill points out, “real Stalinist stuff. My wife Irene, she wasn’t an official, she wasn’t a councillor, there was nothing they could get on her. She was just an ordinary active member of the Labour Party. So she was merely expelled, just like that, because she was married to me. There was nothing on the letter of expulsion, just that she was expelled, full stop. It was guilt by association”.
John Lawrence and his supporters initially claimed that some 40 members had been expelled from the South Party, although George Wagner gave a figure of 12 to the press. The eventual number seems to have been somewhere in between. In addition, those councillors and aldermen from the North Party who had joined the Independent Socialist Group – Jock Stallard, Stewart Phelan, Phil Sheridan, Kathleen Sheridan (Peggy Duff’s daughter), James Buckland and Emmanuel Borg – fell victim to the NEC’s purge. Altogether some 30 members seem to have been expelled from the two St Pancras parties.
The St Pancras North Party had sent a letter to the NEC calling for the reinstatement of all those expelled, and later passed a resolution to that effect for annual conference. But they were evidently anxious to avoid a bureaucratic purge like the one in Holborn and St Pancras South. A statement was issued by four of the North Party officers, expressing their “dislike” of the way in which Lawrence had been dealt with by the NEC and their “regret” that his supporters had broken from the Labour Group, resulting in their expulsion from the party. The statement lectured the expelled councillors that “the place to fight for Socialism and for tolerance is inside the Labour Party”, and emphasised that “there has been no investigation of the Labour Group or its policies and no criticism by the National Executive Committee”.
This was too much for Jock Stallard, who sent a strong letter to Tribune, criticising the authors of the North Party’s statement for being “mainly concerned to justify their own acquiescence” in the expulsions. “I felt that we should have stood firm against this dictatorial interference by the NEC”, he wrote, “and refused to allow them to depose our democratically elected leader of the council. In that case, I am sure, there would have been no expulsions at all and Councillor Lawrence would have been reinstated at the next NEC…. It seems that my crime in the eyes of the North St Pancras officers is that I didn’t run for constitutional shelter when the axe fell on my socialist comrades in the South Party – so now I and five other North councillors have been expelled. We all of us believed that ‘the place to fight for Socialism is in the Labour Party’, but as far as I am concerned, whether we can still believe it after the October conference will depend on whether the conference reinstates the expelled St Pancras Socialists.”
Meanwhile, the Lawrence group launched a vigorous campaign for reinstatement. They issued a leaflet entitled An Appeal to Labour Voters which put their case against expulsion:
“Labour voters! Are you aware that people who for years have led the fight against the Tories in St Pancras are now being expelled from the Labour Party in large numbers? Did you know that to carry through this purge, the top leaders – the National Executive Committee – have over-ruled strong protests from both local Labour Parties and from the Labour Group on the Council?
“Among those who have fallen under the axe are: Councillors John Lawrence, leader of St Pancras Borough Council; Hilda Lane, the Deputy Mayor of St Pancras; Jock Stallard, the Chief Whip of the Labour Group; John Edwards, Public Health Committee Chairman; Jim Buckland, Building Committee Chairman; David Goldhill, Secretary of the United Tenants’ Committee, set up to fight the Tory Rent Act; Stewart Phelan, Secretary of the St Pancras Trades Council; Emmanuel Borg, Secretary of the North St Pancras Co-op Party; George McKew, Shop Steward at Covent Garden; Phil Sheridan, one of the mainstays of the St Pancras Labour Youth Section; and Roy Beecham, Branch Official of ASLEF; Alderman Mrs Sheridan, for many years Secretary of North St Pancras Labour Party; and Charles Taylor, past Socialist Propaganda Secretary and active member of NATSOPA; also Margaret Davis, Secretary of the Holborn Co-op Party; Bernie Holland, Secretary of the Covent Garden branch of the Transport and General Workers Union; and many other active supporters of Socialist policies.
“All these expelled members have been accused of conducting activities against the interests of the Labour Party. It is a shameful lie. Here is their record. Please judge it for yourselves.
“Over the past two years St Pancras Borough Council, led by the people who have now been expelled, has fought the Tory government on every single issue affecting the lives and well-being of the workers of St Pancras. They have build more houses than most other London boroughs – while other councils have shut down their building programmes in accordance with the Government’s credit squeeze. They have refused to raise rents (some rents have actually been lowered), and have prevented the introduction of the means test for council tenants. They have started a vigorous slum clearance programme, which the Tory minister has now put a stop to. They have refused to participate in the deception of Civil Defence and have called on the Government to reach agreement with other nations for the banning of the bestial H-bomb as the only way to save the people of London from certain death. They have given all council employees a paid holiday on Labour Day – May Day – and have flown Labour’s flag, the Red Flag, over the Town Hall in defiance of threats from enraged Tories and Fascists.
“But these people whom the National Executive have chucked out of the Party didn’t confine their activities to the council chamber. They believed, and still believe, that the place of a Labour councillor is with the people in every demonstration against the Tory Government. They were, therefore, among the original sponsors of the United Tenants’ movement against the Rent Act. They marched in demonstrations against this Act. They spoke on the street corners against it. They prosecuted landlords who abused it. They picketed the homes of tenants who were threatened with eviction and they forced the landlords to retreat. They organised demonstrations to Whitehall to demand that the great empty houses in Cumberland Terrace be handed over to the council for housing some 6,000 families on the waiting list. They turned out – with thousands of other Socialists – to defend the Trades Council’s May Day rally against the Tories and Fascists, and many of them were arrested and fined. In brief, these expelled members have tried to act like Socialists. Is this why the National Executive Committee has expelled them? Is the National Executive Committee trying to say that there is no place in the Labour Party for people who fight the Tories?
“The National Executive Committee have now split and divided the Labour Party; it is a godsend to the Tories. Unless you intervene, it may mean less houses, higher rents and the end of all fight against the Tories. Only a few months ago, Labour in Holborn and St Pancras gained all three seats on the London County Council for the first time ever. We already have a good majority on the Borough Council, and our borough is represented in parliament by two Labour MPs; all these achievements have been placed in jeopardy by the actions of the National Executive Committee.
“The North St Pancras Labour Party has sent a resolution to the National Conference asking for the reinstatement of all expelled members. The Conference meets in October and we ask you to back up this appeal for reinstatement. Show the Party that we want a united labour movement in St Pancras, that we want to continue with the good work that has already been done, and that we want more socialists in the Party, not less.”
This leaflet was distributed in a door-to-door campaign, and Labour supporters were asked to sign a petition calling for the reinstatement of the expelled members. Lawrence stated that 80% of those who were approached agreed to do so. By early September more than 5,000 Labour voters in St Pancras had put their names to the petition, while another petition in Greek had received the signatures of 300 Cypriots in the borough. Lawrence and the other expelled councillors also organised a public meeting to answer the charges against Lawrence by the Labour Party right wing. “It is a lot of chit-chat gossip from people who have lost out within the party and have had to go running to the National Executive Committee for help”, John Lawrence told his audience, before going through Morgan Phillips’ letter point by point.
Morgan Phillips accused him of being a former member of the Communist Party. “So I was – 21 years ago”, Lawrence retorted. Phillips said that Lawrence had been associated with an organisation known as the Socialist Fellowship. “So I was and one of its functions was to sing socialist songs. This accusation could be used against thousands of Labour Party members and 30 MPs.” He was accused of having been the editor of Socialist Outlook. “I enjoyed it, too. I got out when it began to be almost exclusively used for anti-Communist propaganda.” Morgan Phillips went on to say that Lawrence had organised several meetings in which prominent Communist speakers had taken part. “I know of only one”, replied Lawrence. “That was the counter-meeting to the Holborn Hall meeting of Mr Henry Brooke and the Communist was Jock Nicolson who never once attempted any Communist views. Only last week Gaitskell spoke at a miners’ meeting with Communists on the platform.” Lastly Lawrence took up Morgan Phillips’ claim that his public declarations had little in common with democratic socialism. “If the way I have been chucked out is democratic socialism, I want no part of it. The people who have had me expelled are discrediting socialism – not me.”
Lawrence also campaigned for the right to address the Labour Party conference at Scarborough in September and appeal in person against his expulsion. A request to the NEC was turned down on the grounds that expelled members had no constitutional right to do this. But Lawrence was able to point to a precedent in the case of Stafford Cripps, who had been permitted to make a speech to the party conference after his own expulsion 20 years earlier. The hopes of Lawrence and his supporters were raised by the decision of the conference arrangements committee to report his request “to give an account of himself” to the conference delegates.
Delegates to the Bournemouth conference of the TUC early in September were issued with leaflets urging them to support Lawrence’s campaign for reinstatement which, Lawrence told the press, were well received. “The Labour Party can ill afford to lose such militant brothers from its ranks, yet all will be cast out – unless the trade union movement takes up their case”, the leaflet stated. It was signed by executive committee members of the Electrical Trades Union, the Transport and General Workers Union and the National Union of Vehicle Builders, the assistant general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the convenor of Briggs Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee (of which Lawrence was secretary). Messages of support came from Constituency Labour Parties and trade union organisations across the country.
On the eve of the Labour Party conference the NEC dropped a further bombshell when it announced that it had barred Jock Stallard from attending the conference, despite his having been elected as a delegate by the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Although the NEC did not give a reason, Stallard told the press that he had no doubts that the ban was the result of his expulsion from the Labour Party because of his association with John Lawrence and his refusal to give certain undertakings which would have meant his continued Party membership (presumably an agreement to break with the Independent Socialist Group). “This raises a serious constitutional issue”, John Lawrence pointed out. “Up to now affiliated members of the Labour Party could be delegates provided they were not also members of any proscribed organisations. This must virtually exclude all trade union members who are not also individual members of the Labour Party from attending the conference or indeed any meeting of the Labour Party.” Jock Stallard stated that he had continued to pay the political levy to his union, of which he had been a member for 18 years, and had no intention of stopping in spite of the ban. He vigorously denied that he was a member of any proscribed organisation.
John Lawrence, Jock Stallard, Hilda Lane and Bernie Holland all went to Scarborough, where they had booked a room for a fringe meeting to put their case against expulsion. Lawrence spoke optimistically beforehand about the prospect of being allowed to address the conference, but seems to have been prepared for the rejection of his appeal against expulsion. “None of us intends to drop dead if the Labour Party refuse to take us back”, he remarked. They took with them the petition – 68 yards long! – calling for their reinstatement. In addition, money collected door to door in St Pancras and donations from trade union branches had enabled them to produce more than 2000 copies of a 24-page pamphlet, The St Pancras Story, setting out their case for reinstatement, a copy of which was issued to every delegate. Edited by Lawrence himself, the pamphlet featured on its cover a picture of St Pancras Town Hall with the Red Flag flying above it. It explained where the Lawrence group stood politically, what had happened inside the Labour Group on the borough council and the facts about the reorganisation of Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party, and it included the correspondence between Morgan Phillips and Lawrence.
The introduction to the pamphlet asked:
“On what did the NEC base its decision to carry through this purge in Holborn and St Pancras? Ostensibly on the material contained in the letter from Morgan Phillips to John Lawrence. But we believe that this ‘charge-sheet’ was merely a pretext and that the real reason for the expulsions was the NEC’s intense dislike of some of the activities of St Pancras Borough Council. It cannot be otherwise, for we have broken no party rules and, although we are accused of hostility to democratic methods, everything we have done on the council has been done with the full and even the enthusiastic support of the Labour Group, the two Constituency Labour Parties and the local trade union movement.
“As you know, some of these activities have received considerable publicity in the national press – things like the abolition of Civil Defence, the refusal to raise council rents although threatened with a surcharge, and the celebration of May Day with a public holiday for all council employees and the flying of the Red Flag over the Town Hall. (Of course, the council has done other and less publicised things and, in case there are people who think that we spend most of our time flying Red Flags or wrestling with the police, we have published elsewhere in this pamphlet a list of the activities on the St Pancras Council over the last twelve months.)
“Enraged by our efforts to act like socialists, the Tory press has been howling for action to be taken against the ‘reds of St Pancras’. The leader of the St Pancras Tories publicly announced that he was writing to Morgan Phillips to ‘do something’ about us. In our opinion, the NEC has bowed to this reactionary pressure. They have publicly repudiated socialists and socialist policies in order, presumably, to placate the alleged ’Liberal’ allies of the labour movement …
“The NEC will tell you that we are ‘secret communists’. We’re not. We are socialists who believe that unless Labour people speak and act with some pride in their socialist beliefs, unless they squarely counterpose those beliefs to the ideas of the Tories, they will fail utterly to inspire socialist convictions in the ranks of Labour’s supporters. It is not enough to sing the Red Flag at the conclusion of this conference – it is necessary to fly it where we can and be proud to defend it against the synthetic patriots of the Tory Party and the hooligans of Mosley’s Union Movement.
“If we have discredited the party in St Pancras, how is it that 5000 ordinary Labour voters have signed a petition asking for our reinstatement? How is it that on May Day 3000 workers gathered outside the Town Hall to watch the ceremonial lowering of the Red Flag in the evening and sang the Red Flag again and again with many an old campaigner shedding a few tears of emotion? It was a sight we shall never forget and was ample reward for all the insults and slanders we have suffered at the hands of the Tory press.
“Seven of the expelled members were arrested for defying the police and the fascists on that memorable day. If this discredited Labour, how is it that in a few days more than £100 was sent in by Labour organisations to pay the costs of the court and the fines? We are not ashamed of what we have done. We are proud of it and, whether we are reinstated or not, we hope to see that flag over St Pancras next May Day – and over a lot more Town Halls as well.
“You may not agree with everything we have done in St Pancras, but at least you will admit that we tried, in our small way, to ‘have a go’. We didn’t just tamely submit to the established order of things. We tried to show in our public activities that Labour is a rebel party, a fighting party, a socialist party. We fully expected to earn the hatred of the Tories and the fascists – but we must admit that we didn’t bargain on being publicly disowned by the national leaders of our own party.
“The NEC says that our views and activities are indistinguishable from those of known communists. We deny it, but we could reply with far more justification that the views and activities of many prominent party members are indistinguishable from those of known Tories!
“Haven’t we got leaders who advocate no more nationalisation, leaders who resign their parliamentary seats (but not their party cards) to take up office on the directing boards of vast capitalist monopolies, leaders who publicly deplore strikes, and leaders who think there is nothing wrong in dining at the Royal table with leaders of industry and the Tory Party? In Labour’s ranks are prominent people who make a good living from the capitalist press by writing scurrilous attacks on trade unionists, while others, equally prominent, devote themselves to preaching morals to the workers and brotherly love to the employers. Leading Liberals – without abandoning their life-long Liberalism – become Labour MPs within months of joining the party, but socialists in St Pancras are expelled because they have dared to speak on the same platform as a communist at a meeting called by a Tenants’ Association to rally opposition to the Rent Act.
“None of the expelled members are communists – but we are all convinced that Labour will never fulfill its historic role of socialising Britain while it is sick with the disease of ‘anti-communism’. We believe that the party’s present insane hatred of Russia and the communists divides and confuses the workers, and inhibits us from undertaking any truly socialist activity. (We mustn’t, for example, fly the Red Flag for fear we shall be called communists.) Anti-communism plays into the hands of the Tories who, of course, have a vested interest in crushing Russia and preventing the spread of communist and socialist ideas among the British people. By going along with this anti-communist crusade we become the bugle boys of imperialism instead of its grave-diggers. In our opinion, if even half the energy at present expended in attacking Russia and the communists was devoted to attacking capitalism and the Tories, the party would long ago have discredited Macmillan’s government of public school bandits and be well on the way towards sweeping them from power for ever.
“These are the fundamental beliefs which have inspired the work we have conducted in St Pancras, both inside and outside the council chamber. We are not ashamed of what we have done, and we don’t regret it. Now the NEC – overriding all protests from the local labour movement – has cast us out. You, the rank-and-file delegates to the great conference have the power to put us back. We hope you will.”
At the conference itself, in a closed session, Peggy Duff on behalf of St Pancras North Labour Party moved the suspension of standing orders so that John Lawrence could be heard. This was seconded by no less a figure than TGWU general secretary Frank Cousins who, though no political sympathiser of the Lawrence group, apparently felt strongly that the party should have proper machinery for appeals against expulsion. Such sentiments were evidently popular within the party, for the St Pancras resolution received 2,531,000 votes. Even Tom McKitterick, the Holborn and St Pancras South delegate, was mandated to support Lawrence’s right to be heard. But, with 4,101,000 against, the motion was comfortably defeated. And while dissatisfaction with the methods used to expel Lawrence was widespread, there was less opposition to the expulsion itself. When Peggy Duff moved the reference back of that section of the NEC report dealing with the St Pancras purge, this was defeated by 6,019,000 to 476,000. Here a decisive intervention was made by McKitterick, who mounted a bitter attack on Lawrence and his comrades.
Speaking to the North London Press, John Lawrence praised the efforts of Peggy Duff, and said that the conference’s refusal to accept his petition was a snub to the 5,000 Labour voters who signed it. “We have long known”, he said, “that the Labour Party is not Socialist in policy, but it would appear now that it is not even a democratic party, since it has been established that the NEC, in the matter of expulsions, is judge, jury and executioner and there is no machinery for appealing against their decisions.”
“Readmission into the Labour Party – at least for many years – now seems impossible for Councillor Lawrence”, the North London Press commented. “He and his supporters have been discussing whether to join another party or remain an Independent Labour group. Councillor Lawrence said on Wednesday that he would never stand for the council as an Independent and he was not prepared to wait five years ’doing nothing’ for the Labour Party to welcome him back.” The Independent Socialist Group on the council were unable to agree on their next move. But in the week following the party conference Lawrence stated that, since the Labour Party no longer wanted them, he and his supporters would have to consider joining another party. The party they had in mind was indicated by Lawrence’s subsequent statement that they would support the Communist candidate in a forthcoming by-election in Somers Town, “for Communist policy on local government is identical with our own”. The Communist candidate John Taylor, for his part, declared that the CP regarded Lawrence as a “good socialist” and would be happy to have him as a member.
This is the fourth and final part of a study of the John Lawrence group and their activities in the St Pancras labour movement in the late 1950s. The previous part (in What Next? No.10) recounted how Lawrence and his comrades were expelled from the Labour Party following the scandal attending St Pancras Borough Council’s decision to fly the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May Day 1958.
ON MONDAY 24 November 1958 the Daily Worker devoted a front page article plus pictures to its report that John Lawrence, together with six other members of the Independent Socialist Group on St Pancras Council, had officially joined the Communist Party at its Central London Area conference that weekend. The others were Hilda Lane, David Goldhill, councillors Roy Beecham, John Edwards and Phil Sheridan, and Alderman Kathleen Sheridan. They were joined by about a dozen former rank-and-file Labour Party members who had been expelled during the reorganisation of Holborn and St Pancras South, including Irene Goldhill.
The Daily Worker reported: “Councillor Lawrence, addressing the conference, said that none of the seven St Pancras Councillors had joined the Communist Party because they were bitter or despondent about being expelled from the Labour Party. Good socialists were not frightened of expulsion but were worried at being thrown out into a political wilderness. It was necessary to build a strong Communist Party so that militant socialists in the Labour Party could have an answer to the threat of expulsion. ‘We shall continue to strive for the greatest possible unity in the labour movement’, concluded Councillor Lawrence. ‘I hope that we shall prove as good comrades to the Communist Party as I am sure you will prove to us’, said Mrs Lane.”
In an article entitled “Why I Joined”, published in the CP journal Labour Monthly, Hilda Lane expanded on the Lawrence group’s reasons for taking this step. “My one big regret”, she wrote, “is that the expulsions in St Pancras, although many have been recruited to the Communist Party, have meant that others are lost to the labour movement. In its haste to ‘reorganise’ St Pancras, the Labour leadership at Transport House not only made some members of the Communist Party, which is something I am sure they are not exactly gloating over today, but they expelled and isolated several very loyal and active political workers. Not everyone who refused to capitulate to their threats found it possible to join the Communist Party…. We shall have to build the CP to attract such comrades, or the present policies of the Labour Party will lose them to the movement. It is clear now that there are really only two policies to choose from in Britain: that of the Labour Party leadership, and that of the CP.”
David Goldhill points out that their entry into the CP has to be seen in the context of the situation after the CPSU 20th Congress in 1956, when Khrushchev had denounced the crimes of Stalin and announced the inauguration of a new liberal era in the Soviet Union. “The atmosphere was that the Communist Party bureaucracy was completely shocked and the ordinary members disorientated, and there was a real thought that it might actually become a more democratic party, and there was a real chance of getting inside and helping to change the party. That was one of the main motivations that I remember. The 20th Congress had changed the whole attitude. There was the main Russian party apparently being prepared to admit to its errors and reform itself, and the British party would have to lurch in that direction. We went in as a group, and as we had very good relations with the local party it looked as though we might actually become a democratic cell inside that and try and work outwards. We thought that the Stalinists were changing – there was Khrushchev saying that everything was going to be different. It turned out that it wasn’t going to be different for very long. But there was a period when it really did look hopeful. Maybe we were stupid to think that, but it did look as though all the barriers were going down.”
Goldhill recalls that the group was to remain in the CP for less than a year before they were told that their political views were incompatible with party membership and they were politely asked to leave! However, in November 1958 there was as yet little sign of political differences with the CP. In an interview with the North London Press, John Lawrence explained that “we agree with the policies and aims of the Communist Party and think membership of the party is the best way for furthering Socialism in the Labour Party”.
Lawrence stated that they would remain part of the Independent Socialist Group. “We shall not form a Communist group on the council, because we were not elected on that basis. We shall continue to act in a group with the other five councillors who have not joined the Communist Party and Councillor Stallard will continue as group chairman. Although the other five councillors have not joined the party, their policies and views are much the same as ours and we see no point in breaking from them.” Asked about his plans for the council elections in May 1959, Lawrence said he could not say what the CP would do, but “if we are chosen we shall all stand again for election, and if we do we shall fight as Communist candidates. The party has had a pretty rough time in recent years, but I think things are moving our way now. It is the only party in this country which stands unequivocally for a Socialist policy. I am sure we shall get a lot of support from the people of St Pancras”.
Reactions by the six members of the Independent Socialist Group who had not joined the Communists were varied, though they were all agreed they would not seek re-election in May. Jock Stallard stated that he intended to carry on as chairman of the Independent Socialist Group, and “to fight for a continuance of our present policies”. He said that he had no intention of joining the Communist Party but had not decided whether to apply for readmission to the Labour Party at some time in the future. “There’s no future for independents on the council and, of course, the chances of getting returned as an independent are very remote.” Alderman Charlie Taylor stated that he wouldn’t be joining the Communist Party, as did Councillor Stewart Phelan. Councillor George McKew said that while he wouldn’t become a member he intended to work with the CP, and would probably canvass for them in the May elections: “I wish them all the luck in the world. I wouldn’t rejoin the Labour Party if they paid me.” Only one expelled councillor, Emmanuel Borg, was openly hostile to the Lawrence group’s decision to join the CP. He announced his resignation from the Independent Socialist Group and stated his intention to continue as a completely independent member of the council.
Lawrence’s former comrades in Gerry Healy’s organisation published an unsigned article in their paper The Newsletter, under the heading “John Lawrence: A Political Obituary”. This contained the scurrilous accusation that, in joining the Communist Party, Lawrence was “looking for a ready-made way out of the working class”. But it gave details of Lawrence’s long career in the Trotskyist movement, and stated that “his desertion to Stalinism now will not remove the good he did during those years, which will remain as a foundation stone of the Marxist movement”. The article went on to lambast the “Pabloite” conceptions which it claimed underpinned Lawrence’s political evolution: “At the core of his abandonment of Marxism is his conception of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China. He believes that this bureaucracy can liberalise itself, and that this will encourage the Communist Parties to do the same. Fabians believe that capitalist society will gradually become socialist; Lawrence adopts a Fabian brand of Stalinism: he pins his hopes on a gradual evolution. Marxists, however, believe that it is necessary to construct new Marxist parties, and to prepare consciously for the overthrow of the bureaucracies and the establishment of real socialism. Lawrence throws up the sponge at the very time when a large number of Communist Party members, many of long standing, are finding their way to Marxism for the very first time. His retreat from Marxist principles will serve as one more landmark in the education of these new forces.”
IN THE MEANTIME, the district auditor had begun an inquiry into the finances of St Pancras Borough Council. He had been brought in after the Tories, masquerading as concerned local residents, had objected to the council’s expenditure. Two main issues arose – the refusal to organise Civil Defence, which had resulted in the Home Office charging the council for administering it centrally, and the decision to subsidise the rents of tenants in derequisitioned properties. The district auditor quickly reached the conclusion that St Pancras Borough Council had “acted in such a perverse and unreasonable way as to put the ratepayers of the borough at a loss”. When it became clear that he was going to surcharge them, the official Labour Group began to look for a way to retreat.
At the November council meeting the Tories presented a motion calling for the existing policies on Civil Defence and rents to be abandoned, in response to which the official Labour Group put up only timid amendments. These were defeated by a combined vote of the Tories and the Independent Socialist Group, and the Tory motion finally went through by 18 votes to 9, with the official Labour Group abstaining.
One of the Labour amendments, on Civil Defence, moved by Alderman Lena Jeger, criticised the Tory government’s policy at great length. But it agreed under protest to organise Civil Defence in the borough and asked the government to make the statutory grant available retrospectively. The amendment was vigorously opposed by John Lawrence on behalf of the Independent Socialist Group. One of the reasons why they had refused council support for Civil Defence, he pointed out, was that they wished to register a protest against the “criminal irresponsibility” of the government in relation to nuclear armament. “We threw out Civil Defence as a protest against the idea of mixing up the affairs of a local council with the war effort of the Tory government”, Lawrence argued. “We shall now be a laughing stock if we allow this Tory motion to be carried.” The amendment was defeated by 31 votes to 29, with the Independent Socialist Group going into the division lobby to vote with the Tories.
The Tories gloated over their Labour opponents discomfiture, and sought to rubbish St Pancras Council’s record of political militancy. “Lawrence went ahead with the idea that this council was a law unto itself and could defy the government and the law of the land”, Tory leader Donovan said. “The Labour Group took over a very terrible legacy from Councillor Lawrence and we find St Pancras Council today in a very sorry state.” Donovan claimed that his motion gave the council an opportunity to clear up the wreckage of the misguided policies of the past two years and so return to “sane and responsible local government”. He dismissed Mrs Jeger’s amendment as “all froth and words” to cover the Labour Group’s retreat. They knew that the district auditor was “after their pockets”, Donovan sneered, and they were “off to the rat-holes”.
Nor were the Tories averse to expressing bogus sympathy with Lawrence himself, now he had been removed from power, in order to taunt the official Labour Group. Prior, the Conservative whip, declared: “We admire Lawrence because he sticks to his principles and does not run away, although his principles are obnoxious to me. He is worth more than all the rest of the majority party put together. The Labour majority party are afraid of their own skin, and this has been an abject humiliation of that Party. One can admire the Independent Socialist Group who are prepared to stick to their guns come what may. We forecast eighteen months ago that you would be forced to eat your own words and reverse your actions. You are doing just that now and it is an ignominious and miserable spectacle.”
Lawrence condemned any compromise with the Tory demands for a review of rents, which he argued would inevitably herald increases for council tenants. Pointing to the Labour Group, he said: “I warn you here and now that if this happens – I will give you fair notice – I will do my best outside the council chamber to organise the council tenants against this treachery. The district auditor is an accountant whose job is to see that we do not fiddle the books, but he came here to dictate our rents policy. We have done nothing illegal because many local authorities are sick and tired of district auditors terrorising them.” Lawrence contemptuously rejected the Tories’ hypocritical declarations of sympathy. “Take no notice of them – Macmillan’s monsters”, he said, indicating the Tory Group. “When we flew that Red Flag on the town hall it symbolised our defiance of the Tory government. Do not haul down the flag until the fight is won.”
Two days later, the district auditor arrived at St Pancras Town Hall to hear representations from the 23 councillors who he had decided were open to surcharge as a result of the council’s housing subsidies. Once again, it was John Lawrence who pugnaciously defended St Pancras council’s housing policy. “Not alone is there a moral obligation here for which I was prepared to chance my arm, but it is clear also that we act within our legal rights as a Council”, Lawrence declared. Claiming that all questions of “reasonableness” in matters of council rents were exclusively the province of the council itself, he demanded: “Don’t you think it was rather odious for a district auditor to have to ferret out what is reasonable or unreasonable in this matter?”
St Pancras was a very wealthy borough, he went on, but nobody could accuse the council of wasting public money. They had even cut the mayor’s allowance, Lawrence pointed out, by the amount of which the district auditor was contemplating surcharging them. He said that if the Tory Group on the council succeeded in having the Socialist and Labour councillors surcharged they could “overturn and upset” the whole rent policy of the council. “I am on the council to carry out a certain political policy and nobody has suggested that what we have done on this council has been beyond our legal powers. If they feel that we have not been reasonable on this matter the public can throw us out at the next election.” Socialists would reiterate what they had said throughout the years: “The rich must help the poor in these matters.”
Such arguments were lost on the district auditor, however. Although the councillors escaped surcharge over Civil Defence, in March 1959 the district auditor announced that they would be surcharged the total sum of £200 for their action in subsidising rents during the 1957-8 financial year. The official Labour Group appealed (without success) to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, but the Independent Socialist Group decided to contest the decision in the High Court. Their appeal was lodged in the name of Charles Taylor, David Goldhill, John Lawrence, Philip Sheridan, Jock Stallard and Hilda Lane. The case finally came before the High Court in October 1960, by which time the district auditor had imposed a further surcharge of £1,400 for 1958-9. Not unexpectedly, the appeal was dismissed. “I hope,” John Lawrence told the judge, when the verdict was announced, “that I have served my class as well as you have served yours.”
In April 1959 Lawrence became involved in a public exchange with his old enemy Gerry Healy, arising out of a letter Morgan Phillips had sent to all Constituency Labour Parties informing them that the NEC had proscribed Healy’s new organisation, the Socialist Labour League. The letter commented in passing that the SLL was now the main Trotskyist threat because of the “disintegration of the St Pancras group” due to some of them having joined the CP. Anxious to deny any association with the Trotskyist movement now he was in the CP, Lawrence told the North London Press that he was “proud to be a member of the Communist Party” and added that “the so-called ‘Trotskyists’ are as anti-communist as Morgan Phillips”.
This brought the following response from Healy, which was also published in the North London Press: “John Lawrence was a leading member of the Trotskyist movement for many years, and the fact that he left to join the Communist Party does not give him the right to misinterpret opinions on which he once stood. The Socialist Labour League is in defence of the USSR against world imperialism, but this defence does not mean the acceptance of Khrushchev and Stalin. We believe it is right to support the Soviet Union, but we must have the right to criticise the Soviet leadership. Otherwise it is impossible to maintain our position as socialists. John Lawrence is an opponent of bureaucracy on St Pancras Borough Council, but he does not oppose the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union – where some people receive 156 times as much as the average worker. He once said that the mayor of St Pancras should hop on a bus. Why doesn’t he tell the mayor of Moscow to hop on a bus?”
Healy had a point. But his criticisms of Lawrence’s attitude to the bureaucracy in the USSR would have carried rather more weight if Healy had supported Lawrence and his comrades against their common enemy, the bureaucracy in the Labour Party. Though The Newsletter had critically defended Lawrence when he was first expelled – “There is little to be said for adventurism by left-wingers in the Labour Party; there is nothing to be said for witch-hunts” – the paper carried no coverage of Lawrence’s fight for reinstatement. Nor is there any evidence that the Healyites actively backed the campaign inside the Labour Party. Apart from Salford East, where SLL member Harry Ratner was prominent, the CLPs in which the Healyites had influence were noticeably absent from the list of those calling for Lawrence’s reinstatement.
With elections due in early May 1959, the 1956 St Pancras Borough Council was now in its final weeks. At the March council meeting Labour leader Charles Ratchford said the Labour Group had every intention of flying the Red Flag on May Day but would do so in the new mood of compromise which had developed in the Labour group since John Lawrence’s expulsion. “The Red Flag is the flag of the working class throughout the world”, Ratchford stated. “We are the British Labour Party, however, and so we intend to fly the Union Jack as well.” But this was unacceptable to the Tories, who denounced it as “an insult to our national emblem”, and equally to the Independent Socialist Group, who regarded it as an insult to the Red Flag. The two groups combined to vote down the Labour proposal on the general purposes committee, and on May Day 1959 the Red Flag flew over the Town Hall for a second year, though without the dramatic scenes of twelve months earlier.
But the outgoing council finished on a characteristically confrontational note. At the final council meeting before the election, at the end of April, the Tories launched their attack both on the Red Flag and on a proposal to make trade union membership compulsory for council employees as from 1 May. The North London Press reported: “The last meeting of the 1956-elected St Pancras Borough Council proved to be the stormiest and possibly the longest of all the council meetings. It lasted for more than four hours and debates were constantly interrupted by speakers arguing at the tops of their voices and by several members all trying to speak at once. Interruptions were not confined to the floor of the chamber; a man in the public gallery persisted in shouting and asking questions, and eventually left at the request of the Mayor, Councillor Tom Barker. Without doubt it was Councillor Barker’s busiest meeting since he became mayor. He was continually on his feet calling for order or trying to hammer down an interrupting speaker. At the end of the meeting, a small group in one of the galleries, led by Mr John Taylor, the Communist organiser, started singing the Red Flag, and this was taken up by the entire Independent Socialist Group, and a few members of the Labour Party.”
The May elections, however, proved to be a serious setback for the labour movement in St Pancras. The Tories took control of St Pancras Borough Council with 33 councillors as against Labour’s 27. “Red Flag Council Turns Blue” read a headline in the Hampstead and Highgate Express. John Lawrence and Hilda Lane, who stood as Communist candidates in Somers Town, fared even worse. They finished at the bottom of the poll, with 232 and 217 votes respectively, compared with over 1300 for the successful Labour candidates. “The people of St Pancras have spoken with a clear and emphatic voice”, Tory leader Donovan proclaimed. “As a result, the Red Flag, the closed shop and other idiocies will immediately find their way into the limbo of Socialist lunacy.”
This defeat must be seen in the context of a general swing against Labour, which lost 217 seats nationally; and in St Pancras the party in fact polled 3,000 more votes altogether than the Tories. But for the Tories to overturn such a comfortable Labour majority was a disastrous result however you look at it. The blame lay entirely with the Labour right wing. As the example of Liverpool and Lambeth Councils was to demonstrate again in later years, a Labour council pursuing militant policies against a Tory government doesn’t lose votes – it wins them. Electoral support evaporates only when the Labour Party leadership witch-hunts and expels local activists, and the Labour council retreats from its policy of confrontation.
Before the election John Lawrence had warned that a Tory victory in St Pancras would be “disastrous for all working people. Borough council tenants especially will have cause to regret it since they will have to face savage rent increases if the Conservatives, the landlords’ party, get control of the Town Hall”. Indeed Paul Prior, who succeeded Donovan as Tory leader, made it clear that their central concern was to overturn the council’s housing policy – and one of the first decisions they took was to impose a general rise in council rents. This was to provoke a bitter clash between the Tory council and the tenants. It led to the famous St Pancras rent strike, in which John Lawrence and the other comrades who had been driven out of the Labour Party played an important role.
That struggle, which falls outside the scope of this account, mobilised mass action on a scale far greater the Lawrence-led Labour council had been able to do. Indeed, the dramatic events of the rent strike have tended to overshadow the preceding battle within the council and the Labour Party. But the political activities of the Lawrence group deserve a full account, not least as an example of a Marxist tendency seeking ways to work in the mass movement. Whatever criticisms might be made of the group’s methods, today when New Labour is attempting to undermine the very existence of a political workers’ movement, in order to make pragmatic appeals to Middle England backed up by techniques picked up from the advertising industry, socialists will readily identify with the Lawrence group’s fight for class politics on St Pancras Borough Council, symbolised by the flying of the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall.
Serialised in What Next? during 1998-9