Jim Higgins

A Weekend With the Lumpentrots

Source: Young Guard, 1964. It was written by Jim Higgins but attributed to Mike Caffoor as Jim was too old for the Young Socialists at the time.

Alchemy was the mediaeval pastime of attempting to turn base metal into gold. But we progress, and on Saturday and Sunday, 9 and 10 May, at the West London Federation School held at the Clarion, the Alchemists of Keep Left managed to turn the pure gold of political discussion into the base metal of personal abuse and mindless vituperation. As an observer of, and a participant in, a number of political controversies in the past, it has never before been my misfortune to be assailed by this type of hysteria from a political tendency which claimed to be in any way serious.

A cursory glance at the syllabus for the school – containing as it did speakers like Ernie Roberts, John Palmer and Sheila Torrance [1] – promised to provide an interesting and lively weekend. Lively it proved to be; interesting only if your tastes run to morbid psychology.

Ernie Roberts opened the Saturday discussion with his usual, and let it be said, arguable, plea for unity of the left. This reasonable, if somewhat centrist, contribution met with extreme displeasure from the Keep Left element. What, they asked him, was he doing about the possible expulsion of John Robertson? [2] It was fairly clear that comrade Roberts hadn’t the vaguest idea who John Robertson was, and in the eyes of the ‘vanguard’ exposed himself as a ‘fake left’. It is a well-known fact the length of Clapham High Street that a close knowledge of John Robertson is the sine qua non of revolutionary purity.

Sunday morning, however, was to see the full flowering of Keep Left spleen. During the previous evening something of a palace revolution had taken place, the vice-chairman of West London Federation being replaced as chairman of the school by the ‘people’s choice’, Paddy O'Regan. [3] After protests at this manoeuvre were brushed aside by the KL majority, Comrade O'Regan introduced Sheila Torrance, a member of the YS national committee no less (and if her powers of analysis and speaking ability are anything to go by she should be a lot less). She immediately set the tone for the discussion by indicating her intention of proving the right-wing connections of Young Guard, and their gross betrayal of working-class youth. This she attempted to do on the basis that YG is willing to print articles by such well-known agents of reaction as Ben Sawbridge and Willie Lomax. Not only this – YG had permitted both of these comrades to express anti-KL sentiments at a YG readers’ meeting. But worse is to come. YG had compounded this felony by putting the YS before John Robertson at the Easter YS conference, thus justifying the epithet political scabs. This type of accusation of guilt by association is the hallmark of every rascal who has disgraced the political scene from Titus Oates to that arch-mixer of amalgams JV Stalin.

After this badly-delivered diatribe, a number of Sheila Torrance’s supporters stood up and, referring to carefully-prepared notes, detailed a number of instances where alleged YG supporters had behaved in an anti-KL fashion in YS branches. One young lady who sat close to me had her speech prepared before the session began (presumably to give more substance to her spontaneous expressions of disgust at YG infamy). To detail all trivia would be tedious, and to answer it would be to elevate it to a question requiring serious consideration. Suffice it to say that the ‘stories’ were compounded of straight lies, distortion and plain misstatement of fact. It would seem from the discussion that anyone who has the temerity to oppose KL is in danger of acquiring the label of a YG supporter. John Austin had better watch out.

About the only approach to a serious political point that was made by these comrades was in their assertion that the youth will be providing the leadership in the coming struggles, and as solid proof of this they adduced the rioting at Clacton. Presumably the mods and rockers were disputing for the leadership of the working class. [4]

Having listened for two hours to futile accusations and counter-accusations in the morning, I looked forward to the afternoon session when John Palmer was billed to speak on ‘Perspectives for the Labour Movement’. In the event I was not disappointed in Comrade Palmer’s introduction. He gave a fairly comprehensive economic analysis in which he detailed the unfolding of the permanent arms economy, automation and the probability of larger technological unemployment. Because I broadly agree with his analysis does not in any way mean that I regard it as revealed truth. There are grounds for argument on a whole number of points, and one would have something sensible to say on the question. Indeed for a few minutes it looked as if sense would hold sway and that a little clarification would take place. The first two speakers referred specifically ‘to the speech’, and argued against it, if rather incoherently and with the odd aside about political scabbery, at least to the point. This could not be allowed to continue and Sheila Torrance bravely stopped the trickle of political discussion becoming a flood. We should return, she said, to the discussion of this morning. Politics was apparently unimportant; to expose the misdeeds of YG was the prime task of the revolutionary vanguard. Right on cue, her comrades responded. One young hopeful obviously ripe for promotion suggested that we examine John Palmer’s record in the YS. This he did, using as his text an obscure internal bulletin produced by an even more obscure organisation. From this he asserted that John Palmer had led the attack on George Brown’s [5] May Day platform, personally wrestling the microphone from George’s nerveless grasp. Some weeks later when Palmer was being interviewed by the election subcommittee, George Brown is alleged to have smiled and said: ‘We have met before.’ This preposterous nonsense purporting to prove YG’s part in KL’s proscription was greeted by applause from the clique. The fact that photographic evidence of the May Day fracas proves quite conclusively that Palmer was nowhere near the platform is beside the point as far as Keep Left is concerned. The fact that the only way actually to know what was said at the NEC sub-committee is to be on intimate terms with George Brown, Sarah Barker, [6] et al, is no argument to convince a Keep Lefter with the bit between his teeth. Indeed if one had the sort of mind that dealt in conspiracies, one could hatch up quite a story on the basis of who does the right wing tell its secrets to.

After Palmer had wound up the discussion attempting to answer all the slanders (a monumental task), Comrade O'Regan closed the meeting with a few words most of which I didn’t hear because I left when he suggested that John Palmer and YG exposed themselves for fake lefts and political scabs. Flesh and blood, I felt, could stand only so much.

To conclude this weary saga of political cretinism, there are one or two points that ought to be made. To mis-educate the young is a job which capitalist education, the press, television and the cinema are able to do without assistance from Keep Left. The pathetic theory that youth and in particular the YS are the central focus of socialist struggle may please the youthful ego, but it has nothing to do with reality and even less with socialist theory. To even consider that with the present relation of forces that YG, even if the lies were true, is an obstacle in the path of socialist advance is to prove yourself blind to the real enemies of the working class. Political hardness is in no way enhanced by the repetition of slanders, the retailing of lying gossip, or the ability to lay your tongue to some choice personal abuse.

One supposes – rather sadly – that Keep Left provides a useful object lesson in how not to conduct oneself in the political movement, and it is unfortunate that one day most of them will wake up and find that the intoxicating delights of this form of politics are inevitably followed by a hangover.


1. Ernie Roberts was a leading member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and a left-wing Labour MP; Sheila Torrance was a long-time lieutenant of Gerry Healy and is today a leader of the rump Workers Revolutionary Party; John Palmer was at this time a member of the International Socialists.

2. John Robertson was a member of Healy’s faction in the Young Socialists who was expelled after staging a provocation.

3. Another Healyite youth leader, husband of Sheila Torrance, still with the rump WRP.

4. In 1964 gangs of hooligan youth, besuited Mods on scooters and leather-clad Rockers on motorbikes, regularly staged punch-ups in British holiday resorts. Healy considered them as potential recruits to his organisation.

5. George Brown was a leading right-wing Labour MP and notorious inebriate, subsequently a cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s government.

6. Sarah Barker was a leading Labour Party bureaucrat; her department kept voluminous files on party members.