Mal Richardson (MR) was a member of the Socialist Party’s forerunner, Militant, and rejoined the Socialist Party a few years ago. Iain Dalton (ID) interviewed him about why he joined and his experiences with Militant in the 1980s.
ID: When and why did you join the Militant?
MR: Although I’d seen the paper before, I really came into contact with Militant during the national engineering dispute in Autumn 1979, a few months after the election of the Thatcher government. I met John Ingham and Clive Heemskerk, who was a student at Leeds University at the time, I met them on the picket line at British Screw Company on Kirkstall Road. I were invited along to Militant branch meetings shortly afterwards. I took about three months to ask any questions.
The Militant at that time were organised on a constituency basis, cos we were pretty active in the Labour Party back then. North East Leeds Labour Party were very much led by Militant, at the time produced a housing pamphlet, on ‘The Socialist Way Forward for Housing’ which is quite pertinent today.
After the national industrial dispute and the advances we had in the Labour Party, bringing about the reselection of MPs, conference being able to make decisions as the party swung to the left, we were then hit, industrially, by massive closures and redundancies. I myself were made redundant from British Steel Company in early 1981 and I were out of work for quite a few months until finding more work through contacts in the union.
I got a job at Medasil Surgical, the ironic thing is that there were four of us from the former British Steel Company who got a job there and one of the lads actually got sacked because he voiced his opinion of the small pay rise that we got, went out on strike, and lucky for us at the time, the Militant had just opened our first centre which were on Hunslet Road and were staffed by John. And by that time we were in the middle of taking on another full timer for the Leeds and Yorkshire area.
We were successful in getting this lads job back, and getting recognition at the company, just in time for the National Health Service dispute of May 82 kicking off. And we were quite heavily involved in that, raising awareness within the Labour Party, getting support and finance for the strikers and recruiting members to Militant.
Around the same time all of us in Leeds were involved in the campaign for Pat Wall. Pat was the democratically selected candidate for parliament in Bradford North and the sitting member of parliament decided to split off and form his own campaign and stood against Pat in 1983 election. In 81/82 we took part in building support for Pat on estates all around Bradford, helping out the Bradford comrades and building a base for socialist ideas.
‘83 election was a fantastic election, one of the best campaigns I’ve taken part in. This was at the time when the party itself was also doing other work, around Dave Nellist down in Coventry, Dave was victories. Terry Fields, and Terry was victorious as well over in Liverpool. But unfortunately, because Ben Ford, the sitting Labour MP, split the vote, Pat was unsuccessful. But we were successful in so far as spreading our ideas and gaining more recruits, because it made us more determined to win it in the next election after that.
It were remarked at the time, in 83 I think by Keith Neary, it always sticks in my mind. At the meeting after the count, Keith said ‘the Labour government lost in 1924, in 1926 they were involved in the General Strike’. We ourselves were involved in less than a year in the Stockport Messenger dispute and also the historic miners strike, when it started in March ’84.
We were all heavily involved in the miners strike, it was unbelievable, either through the Labour party or through the party itself. Every comrade, who were around at that time, can hold their head up high, because we really did cement that strike together. We really did play a… particularly people like John Ingham, over in Hemsworth and Fitzwilliam, we really did play a great role in supporting the miners.
All this were taking place in the backdrop of what was happening in Liverpool as well, where we we’d built an excellent base around the council.
ID: Can I take you back a bit to ask about more detail about when you joined?
MR: I was one of the first industrial comrades of that upsurge, if you like. I went over to the North East Leeds branch, although technically I should have been in South East Leeds if I had been doing work in the party. In North East Leeds branch there were so really, really good comrades, and there was some very good work. And it proved such, in the years preceding that, when we managed to move into East Leeds and recruit people, you know, of the calibre of Sharon Heal, and quite a few other people.
ID: Can you remember any of the names of people who were active in Militant when you joined?
MR: I remember when I joined, because going to North East Leeds branch at that time was Kevin Pattison, who shortly before that time had just been elected full time branch secretary of Leeds Post Office Engineering as it was then. Much to the annoyance of the right wing, both locally and nationally. As I say, John was the full time organiser for Leeds, and he went on to become Regional Secretary of Militant. We also had both Heemskerk brothers, Clive, who’s Deputy Editor, now, of Socialism Today. And there were people like Bill Wynne, who went down to work at the national centre, who were absolutely brilliant, he was tireless, he used to sell more papers sometimes than the rest of the district! He was a fine example to anybody, he was a tireless worker.
We also had quite a presence in the Labour Party, like I said, with people like Terry Wilson, who was a teacher at Foxwood school in East Leeds. He also recruited a couple of teacher from that school, and also Sharon Heal, who was a pupil from that school, who went on to become a full timer for Militant and Militant Labour.
ID: How big was Militant at that time in Leeds?
MR: About 79/80, things were just beginning to change, with regards to the party. Our big base in West Yorkshire was obviously Bradford, because of the work over there in the 70s, around Pat Wall and what Pat had done as President of Bradford Trades Council in the anti-racist campaigns over there. Bradford was like the jewel in our crown, I remember the first time I went over to Bradford. I was sent to go meet on this street corner some Labour Party comrades, and I got there and there were all these asian guys stood on this corner. I said ‘excuse me, I’ve been given this paper for this person, is Ragvir Virdee here?’ and I heard this booming voice from the back, ‘my name is Ragvir Virdee’ and he was, I think, the President of the Indian Workers Association in Bradford, he was on Trades Council and was a big, big supporter of the party. It was from there that we mounted our campaigns and eventually in ’87, after losing in ’83 by a whisker, managed to win the seat back in ’87, which was absolutely magic.
ID: Were there any other events in Leeds at that time that Militant had a major involvement in?
MR: In 1981, there was a big factory in Kirkstall called Kirkstall Forge, it was owned by GKN and they had a big dispute in the run-up to Christmas. And we intervened and we gave them a lot of support, John Ingham, particularly, played a magnificent role in that. The company decided, just before Christmas, that they’d send everyone a turkey, whilst they were out on strike, and all the workers brought their turkeys and dumped them at the factory gate, I remember that incident.
We had, round about the same time, a big meeting, in what is now the Northern Monkey, they used to call it the Guildford then, upstairs in the Guildford, and we had the Kirstall Forge strikers there, and lots of people from the Labour Party were there, as it was at the height of the leadership and deputy leadership ballots in the Labour Party, it was an absolutely excellent, groundbreaking meeting.
ID: When you joined, were you in the LPYS?
MR: Yes I was, we had quite excellent conferences. I was quite fortunate to get sponsored to one of the LPYS conferences in Bridlington, by what used to be the GMWU, its now the GMB. I got thrust into my hand money, and I didn’t know people got these kinds of expenses, but Militant being Militant, Socialist Party as it is quite proud of that fact, I finished up with about £20 and I had to pay out of my own pocket cos we subsidised other comrades to go along who were unemployed who were a lot less fortunate than myself, and students. It was an absolutely excellent conference. I went to the one in ’82, I went in ’83 and I went to the Blackpool one in ’84, and I was fortunate enough to see Paul Weller and Billy Bragg do a set on stage in support of the mineworkers, and a look around now and I don’t see anyone who’s got that taped.
ID: What was it like being a Young Socialist member in Leeds, what were you involved in?
MR: I was in the strongest Young Socialist branch we had, the politics were never sidelined at all. The social life was absolutely excellent, you ask any of the comrades that were around at that time. We used to have, though Leeds is very yuppiefied now, just across you go Neville Street bridge, there were Co-op Rooms, which we used to utilise on a regular basis, having home brew festivals. We used to raise finance for the organisation, theres a saying by James Connolly, ‘you never see a drunked socialist’, well I can assure you I’ve seen quite a few.
ID: Were you involved in the School Student strikes?
MR: In 1985, the Militant organised, with the LPYS, to set up this Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign, because the Tory government at the time was thinking about forcing school leavers onto compulsory YTS schemes, threatening to withdraw benefits if you didn’t go on them. We organised huge demonstrations, got pop and rock stars to speak out in magazines Melody Maker and NME, doing articles for both Socialist Youth, which was then the LPYS paper, and for Militant. We were successful in driving Thatcher back. It has a lot of relevance for what is happening today, mass action does work.
We didn’t just take part in Leeds campaigns, but we also took part in campaigns in Liverpool from the 1980s when the NEC rep at the time was Tony Saunois, moved a resolution that we had a national demonstration about unemployment, because unemployment was at that time up to 3 million, and that we have it in Liverpool, which was a stroke of genius, because we were starting to build our council campaign them and it helped get other people involved. We had over 150,000 on the demonstration, a Labour Party demonstration, if the Labour Party did something like that today they would have swept this government from power within days. We also went over to Liverpool to take part in the magnificent demonstrations of the thousands of workers on the days the Liverpool Labour Council, led by Militant, set their budget in 1984/85.
ID: How often did you go over to Liverpool or Bradford?
MR: Usually when the local elections were on, but as events changed in early 90s for instance I was proud to take part in the Walton by-election, when we stood as Walton Real Labour, we stood Lesley Mahmood. It was the first time we’d stood against Labour for over 40 years and we drew a line in the sand between Kinnocks capitalist version, and real socialist values.