Kevin Pattison (KP) is a long standing member of the Socialist Party, having joined our forerunner, the Militant tendency in 1974. Iain Dalton (ID) interviewed him about why he joined the Militant and the political situation at the time.
ID: Why did you join the Militant?
KP: I want to know how the world works, in terms of economy, jobs, society and it just seemed to be anarchy in terms of how economies move forward and people got jobs and profits and all these things. When I went to my first public meeting, they just explained how the world worked, in terms of the Russian Revolution, in terms of the economy, in terms of class struggle and that’s why I joined. I got answers when I didn’t get answers before.
ID When you joined were you active in other bodies in the Labour movement at that time or campaign groups?
KP: I was a Labour Party member, but I met the Militant about a week after joining the Labour Party and almost immediately gravitated towards them because they were the ones who were young and dynamic and did activity. I found that interesting rather than just giving out leaflets and canvassing. I was in the union as well, starting to go to union meetings which a lot of apprentices did at that time.
ID: Which union was that?
KP: It was the forerunner of the CWU. It was called the Post Office Engineering Union. The meetings were all fairly tedious to be honest, but I was so honoured, actually, to be involved because political parties and unions often seem to be for other people, they seem to be like a closed door. Being involved I found it fascinating being part of a movement which I wanted to be. So I found it all interesting, but looking back some of them were quite tedious. But I found the Young Socialist meetings far more interesting The discussions and debates were just an eye opener.
ID: How many people used to attend those meetings and what backgorunds did they come from?
KP: They were quite well attended. Union meetings, particularly if there was an issue on pay or jobs, you would get a hundred people there sometimes. Labour Party meetings got the same handful of people, maybe twenty people or something like that.
ID: Which Labour Party was that?
KP: South Leeds. They used to have a picture of Hugh Gaitskell on the wall, who I thought was a socialist. I never knew. To a lot of working class voters, there’s no difference between the right and left of the Labour Party, the see them all as their party. Its only when you actually join, and you start to discuss and debate, you start to see the differences and shades going right the way across the spectrum. And you don’t realise as a voter, who just votes, takes a leaflet, you think its one big party and there’s no differences. It’s only when there’s campaigns like Liverpool, where you see there is a difference and you actually join and you find out there’s an incredible difference.
ID: You mentioned attending a Militant public meeting, how were they organised, on what basis?
KP: All-Leeds, not far off all Yorkshire as we didn’t have many members. The big campaign at the time was the EU or the EEC as it was then known. The referendum was about to be held and I was uncomfortable, because the no campaigns I saw, the official campaigns – used to run through from left of the labour party to communists, morning star, daily worker as it was – right the way through to absolutely horrible Tories like Enoch Powell and I couldn’t get my head around that. And it was only the comrades who actually put forward a clearer perspective to link workers together. I was torn, I wanted to join the EU to link trade unions together, so you had one European trade union which was strong, but I didn’t want to join the EU because I could see it linking business together. So I was in a dilemma. It was a lot clearer when the comrades explained it, was that they wanted to link workers together in a certain way. You got that clarity in general campaigns. An explanation again of how society worked.
ID: Who were key people in the Militant at that time, locally in the area?
KP: The fulltimer was Terry Wilson, who came with us when we had the split but since leaned back to Socialist Appeal. There were other names, Pat Wall obviously, and Bradford was a really strong base. Pat Wall was the leading comrade, and he was one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard cos he used to explain complicated political ideas really clearly so you could grasp it. He never talked down to people, he just had a way of engaging with the class that was exceptional. It’s a tragedy he’s not here actually. Pat Wall and lot of other comrades from Bradford, I’m trying to think of their names. Keith Narey who died unfortunately.
ID: When did he pass away?
KP: It was a tragic thing. After the Tories were defeated and Blair got in power, he was a bit of a drinker, a big real ale fan, and he got absolutely blathered in celebrating and then fell over a wall, cut himself and bled to death. It was really awful, just terrible. He’d left the Militant by then, but he was a good bloke, good socialist in a general sense. These things happen. Pat Wall died of cancer.
John Ingham, he was another one in Leeds. He was a shop steward and then became a full timer. He was a shop steward in engineering. I still see him, we occasionally go for a drink. He’s still a good socialist, not active in politics.
ID: So you were saying about the Militant meetings, they were organised on a all-Leeds basis or an all-Yorkshire basis?
KP: It was an all-Leeds basis when I first joined, but Leeds and Wakefield. And we used to have meetings involving Bradford and Huddersfield and Halifax on a Yorkshire basis and they would be really impressive, that would be an aggregate to be honest. And of course, you had to be slightly more circumspect, because of course they [the Labour Party bureaucracy] would expel us if they could. So we had to be a bit careful about meetings, but we did hold public meetings. Unemployment was a huge issue, it was increasing. We had a public meeting on the EU referendum and on unemployment and on various political issues, I can’t remember them now. We used to have public meetings, but we used to have to be very careful about how you organise them – they had to organised in the name of the paper, and in internal meetings had to be separate. But we campaigned, we always sold our papers.
ID: What was the average weeks activity like then?
KP: We always used to have a weekly Labour Party Young Socialists meeting, and a weekly branch meeting. Sometimes a public meeting, about every month. We used to have a stall, we didn’t actually have a stall then, we used to sell the paper in front of us – the stalls have become more refined. We always used to intervene in trade union meetings, sometime workplace sales and there were quite a few strikes taking place so there’d always be a picket line to visit.
ID: With the trade union meetings, what would they be like? Today if I go to my union branch meeting, if we are lucky there’s maybe 8 to 10 of us. We’re the meetings more like in the run up to November 30th when UNISON had a meeting of over a hundred shop stewards?
KP: The trade union meetings were bigger, there were more of them. People didn’t mobiles or laptops or things like this, so you’d often communicate by going to union meetings to find out, on a leaflet or something read out. The trades council would have a hundred delegates at a small meeting, for the AGM there would be two hundred people there, really big mass meetings. Union meetings were big all over the city.
ID: In terms of your own involvement in the union. You were saying that when you joined you had just started going to union meetings. What capacity was that in?
KP: I was very quickly elected onto the committee. BT used to at the time recruit a hundred in Yorkshire, maybe a hundred and fifty each year. It was a time when they were expanding and telecommunications taking off so you’d have this massive influx of young people, and in other industries as well – electricity generation, electricity distribution all these different things, the gas board, would be taking in large numbers of young apprentices. So you were getting a change from an older trade unionist to a younger trade unionist. Consciously, I was then asked to get more young people involved in the trade union movement, sell the paper to them and it changed and you started to get a younger element in the trade union movement.
ID: Were there any major points of debate or discussion within the Tendency at that point?
KP: Yes, the national question – Scotland and Wales. I can’t remember the details because it went over my head. But I was just so impressed with the speakers and the way comrades read an awful and it just said to me I must read more Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Engels. I wanted to get my level of understanding to their level as I was just a bystander in the debate really. This was the thing about the Militant then, it wasn’t a closed conference, if you joined you went to conference and it was inclusive and you could speak to the leading comrades at any time, which is the same now. We’re not an elitist organisation with a hierarchy. Obviously there were central committee meetings, but often they were open and there’d invite people down. We’re an open organisation, as we are now
ID: Was that conference the first national event you went to?
KP: Yes, in Manchester?
ID: Was it a one-day conference?
KP: Two day
ID: Just on the national question?
KP: No there was an international report and things like that. Perspectives were discussed as well. But the debate if you remember, was on the national question, there were people from Scotland and Wales putting a different view, very precise points – no major disagreements, small but important points in terms of the class struggle.
ID: How did the Militant develop after you joined in Leeds and West Yorkshire?
KP: There was not only trade union struggles taking place, the Labour party was being transformed. It was nothing like it is today. The Labour party had hige links with the trade union movement, some of those were dormant. You still had clause 4, they still regarded themselves as a party that stood for nationalisation. The big debates were what type of nationalisation, how would we take over industry and get workers democracy, could workers run industry. All there were reformist debates, but left reformism was a decent, credible, socialistic alternative – it wasn’t a wishy-washy Fabian creed, these were quite hard-nosed trade unionists who talked about the nature of society and you could engage with them, and I think that’s what we are trying to do with the campaign for a new workers party is engage with the same sort of people. But the Labour party grew enormously, particularly trade unionists joining the Labour party to change society, not for careers. And it was fertile ground for recruits for a Trotskyist or Marxist organisation.
ID: How did that reflect in the activity of Militant?
KP: Yes, nationally and locally we controlled the Young Socialists. Not in any bureaucratic way, but we had all the supporters and all the members and if any issue came up we would win the vote and won positions nationally. We used to have a conscious orientation towards the Labour party, we’d sell at the meetings, even the ward meetings used to have over twenty people going to them. The constituency meeting might have fifty to a hundred people. Everybody who joined who was under 25 was automatically a member of the Young Socialists and in my branch we had over a hundred members of the Young Socialists in one constituency. And now you can’t find a young person anywhere in the Labour Party. We used to have active meetings of twenty in just the one constituency, with six constituencies in Leeds. There would be an enormous number of young people that would join to change society, you don’t join the Labour party now to change society
ID: What proportion of those Young Socialists would be Militant supporters?
KP: When they joined, if you spotted a young person you would be straight into them at the end of a meeting to sell them a paper and ask them if they were interested in coming to the pub for a discussion afterwards, or interested in coming to a Young Socialist meeting. The Young Socialist meeting agendas, would be very left agenda, topics like unemployment, nationalisation and international topics. Franco, the Spanish dictator, was still alive at the time and we had the Young Socialists Spanish Defence Campaign, which was very useful because we’d have international links, and official links as a section of the Labour Party, officially with sections of trade union movement and the growing socialist party, which hadn’t yet been formed in Spain. And because the Spanish Civil War wasn’t that long ago in historical terms it gave us a real echo and people would give us enormous amounts of money because it was only what, forty years or so before.