Jim Higgins

A Day with the Leadership

(March 1968)

From Labour Worker, March 1968.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the last ten years it has been my pleasure to attend conferences organised either directly by the Socialist Labour League or through one of its rapidly changing front organisations. Each conference was hailed as the most important working class gatherings to date, each conference hailed the new revolutionary leadership and at various times the cadre was to be replenished and expanded from dockers, building workers, the ‘revolutionary youth’, and, more recently, the left MP’s.

It is my impression that SLL conferences are not what they used to be. Perhaps time is lending glamour to a failing memory, but the first such event I attended (the Newsletter Conference of 1958) was the best of the lot. The maturity of the delegates and the quality of their contributions was matched by the ability of the platform, which included Peter Fryer, Brian Behan and Harry Constable (all of them long gone from Clapham High Street).

Measured by this standard, the February 3rd conference, held under the auspices of the Oxford Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unionism, was a sad degeneration. The speeches were poor stuff, many of the speakers were distinctly ‘revolutionary youth’ and a recent levy at that, the numbers were down and the platform speaker who announced 550 delegates should clearly stop counting feet and start counting heads.

Now obviously these are not major questions for complaint. Numbers are not crucial to a successful conference and bad speeches which contain some thought and an attempt to contribute from real experience are always worthwhile. There were, however, only two such speeches – one from a provincial busman and another from R Hamilton of DATA.

The first gave some indication of the difficulties in the busman’s fight. He explained how an overtime ban that took a third of the buses off the road resulted in far more work for the busmen, while revenue was little affected because more people crowded on the buses that remained on the road. The final decision to strike, with its consequent complete shutting off of revenue, brought the employers to heel in short order. This victory is real even though Cousin’s grotesque resort to the courts will obviously squander much of the advantage gained.

Bob Hamilton made a closely reasoned and factual speech on the shipbuilding consortia on the Clyde and the employer/trade union leader drive for rationalisation and speed-up.

That however was the lot and two speeches do not make a conference. For the rest we were treated to a farrago of ill-connected nonsense. The need for leadership renewal ran through the proceedings like Andrews through the alimentary tract. This intangible quality was seen to reside in the queerest places, at one stage it was the SLL, at another the Young Socialists and at another it was being constructed that very day in the deliberations.

The Communist Party came in for its well-merited share of abuse (can it stand much more of this and live?) With some knockabout comedy at the expense of Dick Etheridge, which seemed to go down well with the locals. A new demon on the SLL index of untouchables is, apparently the ‘syndicalists’. At the first intimation of Healy’s latest anathema I was puzzled, assuming that the reference was to the few organised anarcho-syndicalists still extant, but by paying close attention I was able to unravel the mystery.

The fractured logic seems to go something like this: syndicalists are anti-politics; the only real politics are SLL politics; therefore if you are opposed to SLL politics you are a syndicalist. As my old school-master used to say, there is a brain at work somewhere.

Another piece of frivolity that had the faithful rolling in the aisles was the suggestion (seriously intended apparently) to reconvene the Labour party conference. This, it seems, is part of the campaign to expose the Wilson administration; that Wilson can no further on the road to self-exposure without eviscerating himself seems to be missed by the rising new leadership.

A touch of light relief (and it was needed) came when an unemployed worker told the conference that the only organisation to help the unemployed was the ‘Socialist Labour Party’, a statement that may please the shade of De Leon, but is unlikely to win friends in the Socialist Labour League.

But what comes out of all in this case is a meaningless committee with pretensions to national leadership firmly under the control of the SLL. The opportunist politics are the same; only the focus has been slightly shifted. The problems half raised and badly analysed at the conference do exist. But the fight against the employers and the Government is not helped by the arrogant assumption of leadership by those who have the greatest difficulty in coherently putting over their policy, particularly when that policy is an attempt to graft on to the actual needs of the situation the special interests of a small but hysterically vociferous organisation.


Last updated on 1.11.2003