1980s >> 1984 >> no-958-june-1984

A Knight exposed

Ted Knight, leader of Labour-controlled Lambeth Council, is a politician whose lips produce a stream of radical cliches. Presiding over one of the most impoverished boroughs in London, Knight’s response takes the form of left-wing posturing and bureaucratic exercises in reformist futility. Knight and his fellow Labour councillors have a relationship with their NALGO and NUPE workers which is widely acknowledged as one of the worst in London. This is not unrelated to Knight’s autocratic style of power, which currently depends on the defection of one councillor to the Labour Party from the SDP; there was no election after the defection and Knight is therefore ruling Lambeth despite the fact that most of the councillors elected were not of his party.

On 28 April the Socialist Party of Great Britain set up a literature stall inside the Friends’ Meeting House in Euston, London. The rally which were attending was called A New Social Order For Britain and, in addition to the opportunity to sell and give away socialist literature, over an hour of the meeting section of the event was due to be allocated for speakers from the floor to state their case. So seventeen Socialist Party members entered, talking to people at the literature stall, visiting the other stalls and seeing what ideas they had to offer and preparing to have our say in the discussion period.

From the start, it was a strange event. The politicos were there alright: Camden Labour Party, the Peace Pledge Union, CND, SERA and the Ecology Party. As a group of us entered we saw immediately that this was no ordinary lefty set-up: a procession of harmless-looking folk were doing a “sacred dance” around the hall. While they did the Greenham shuffle, apologetic stewards tried to get the admission fee out of us: £2 to get in (“Well, you do know that Tony Benn’s speaking, don’t you?”) and 70p. for the unemployed, old, young, ill, oppressed—they ended up owing one of our lot £1.40.

Once inside it became clear that this event was an occasion for all sorts of people to search into the recesses of their minds for peculiar ideas to present to those who would listen: Pagans Against Nukes, the Vegan Society, Kingston Natural Healing Centre, Celtic Friends of the Trees, Playworld. Socialists are not unwilling to listen to and learn from such people and, to tell the truth, many of their ideas were considerably more practical than the conventional wisdom of non-fringe thinking which workers are taught to revere. Of course, there were astrologists and religion-pushers and the odd con-man who was clearly there only to earn a few quid by exploiting the gullible. But it was a pleasant atmosphere and it was right that a socialist presence was there to counter the distortions being handed out from the Labour Party stall.

At about two o’clock the public meeting was due to begin in the main hall. Socialists spread ourselves around. A few hundred workers listened as Joan Andrews, the organiser of the event, made it clear that we were here to make plans for an “Alternative Britain”. On the platform were Tony Benn (head in hands), Rex Andrews (Quaker), Helen John (“a Greenham woman”), Jonathon Porritt (Ecology Party), Angela Warner (anti-vivisectionist), Guy Dauncey (trendy writer) and, in the chair, Ted Knight. Ted stood up. So did the four rows sitting behind me. Ted cleared his throat to allow a few radical cliches to ascend to his mouth, but before he could do so the people behind were shouting him down: “We don’t want Ted Knight to chair this meeting. He’s an enemy of working-class people. He evicted us and our mates at four in the morning from our council flats in Brixton.”

Ted tried to talk over them, but there was a victory of real feeling over empty rhetoric and the demonstrators were drowning them out. Their story, it seems, is that Lambeth Council used riot police, accompanied by dogs, to burst into the flats of these workers and evict them from their homes. Who could blame them for wanting to see Knight off a platform debating a “new social order”? For nearly an hour the row continued. At one point Guy Dauncey and a few other trendy nice-guys grabbed the microphone and vainly urged the audience to sing a song of peace to drown out the dissenting shouts.

Socialists argued with the demonstrators that the best way to proceed would be to destroy Knight in argument rather than destroy the meeting. One socialist suggested to Knight that the only democratic and honourable thing for him to do would be to leave the meeting. Knight insisted that he would stay and that, despite there having been no vote electing him to the chair, he would tolerate no vote to remove him. Before very long four van-loads of police were on the scene. A vote was taken as to whether they should be brought in; socialists voted against and the vote was lost overwhelmingly.

There was one card left to play as far as the platform leaders were concerned: bring Benn to the microphone. Everyone would listen to Benn. And sure enough, they did. Even the evicted workers—who had been thrown out of their homes on the order of Benn’s party—were silenced when the radical opportunist stood to address them. At first the old performer had them eating out of his hands. He had been at a meeting in Brixton with Ted Knight the previous week and collected £2,000 for the miners. It was outrageous to suggest that a leader of Knight’s quality could be anything but an upright socialist. Applause greeted his every word and even one or two of the evicted workers of Lambeth felt the revival of blind faith. And then Benn made the big mistake: if the miners were here, he said, and if they could see the behaviour of these noisy disrupters over there, they’d soon sort them out. A threat. “Well, the bloody miners aren’t here, mate” shouted a voice and within a few seconds Benn’s microphone had been smashed, the stewards were fighting with the demonstrators and the boys in blue rushed into the meeting to defend Tony Benn against the attack of those he incited to violence by making threats on behalf of workers who were not present. (Had the miners been present maybe they would have supported the evicted workers rather than the radical Viscount.)

Benn finished his speech with the microphone volume at full blast and the disruptors safely locked away in Metropolitan Police vans. After Benn came plenty more reformist waffle: Porritt the Ecology-man spoke about the importance of spirit and the Greenham woman was so self-righteously stale that it was painful to listen. Angela Warner of the BUAV made an informative and emotionally stirring speech, showing how capitalism finds it profitable to cause pain to animals and humans for the sake of profits. Of course, her conclusions were reformist, but it would be a great step forward if we could persuade her and her movement to join the real campaign against the profit priority. Guy Dauncey’s speech sounded like a psychotherapeutic confession and, in the middle of it, he asked us all to sit for two minutes in silence so that we could contact our inner selves (which, after my lunchtime vegetarian curry, I had been thinking of doing during Tony Benn’s speech). Socialists love organised silences because they provide us with an opportunity to do some talking. So, several hundred workers sat in silence while several of us shouted out that “Silence is what the bosses want. It’s time to speak up for yourselves”. “Knight, Benn and the Labourites are not socialists, but mere defenders of state capitalism. They have no alternatives to offer.” “Socialism means a world of common ownership and democratic control. A world without buying or selling or money. The abolition of the wages system.” It was an educative silence.

Then came the discussion period. Knight agreed to let each contributor speak for three minutes at the microphone. A few christian lefties complained about the earlier disturbance and said that they had come to be energised and were now feeling bad vibes. A woman who seemed to be from the Bloomsbury Circle advocated Henry George’s scheme for land reform. Then came the first socialist, who used his time to expose the anti-socialist case of Knight and Co. Then came a spiritualist from Devon who spent two minutes saying that he felt angry about society and then spent what seemed like a long weekend singing a song which proclaimed that socialists are Anti-Christs. We advised him not to give up his day job. Then, by luck, another socialist was invited to have his say. Bob Moran made clear what sort of a society he wanted to live in and urged those agreeing to find out about and then join the Socialist Party of Great Britain. After listening to five more contributions—including an interesting one from a socialist sympathiser who had met us during the last election campaign and another from a man who said that the only way to end the problems of society was to abolish money—it was my turn.

Let us be in no doubt: there are very many workers who are ready and willing to listen to the case for world socialism and to take it up with enthusiasm. Optimistic we may be but socialists have a message which is irresistible and the most urgent and exciting task of the moment is to work for a speedy termination to the system which enslaves the majority class.

Steve Coleman