Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Brian Crookes (1919–2002)

BRIAN Crookes, a member of the Workers’ International League (WIL), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and briefly the Gerry Healy–John Lawrence ‘Club’ in the Labour Party, died in Malton Hospital, Yorkshire, on 31 January 2002. He was born in Bangor, County Down, on 2 March 1919 into a liberal Orange family. Despite his Protestant upbringing, an intense interest in Irish history and the influence of rebels whom he encountered in the unlikely milieu of the Northern Ireland Youth Hostel Association made him a republican while he was still at school. He became an admirer of the radical IRA leader, Frank Ryan, and a supporter of the left Republican Congress.

Ryan’s departure to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where he ended up in Franco’s jails, and the growing ascendancy of the ‘physical force’ politics of Sean Russell jaundiced Crookes with the republican movement. A spell as a clerk in the unemployment exchange in Armagh reinforced his understanding of the depth of working-class exploitation in the Six Counties. Under the influence of local activist Paddy Agnew and its leading light Harry Midgeley, later to desert to loyalism, he joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). His work took him to Belfast where in late 1940 he met Elsie and Bob Armstrong, the former Communist Party activists who were trying to build the Trotskyist movement in the Six Counties. They brought him into the WIL.

Crookes was active in the central youth section of the NILP, propagandising against conscription and selling Socialist Appeal. Disenchanted with his job and increasing Special Branch harassment – encouraged after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR by Betty Sinclair of His Majesty’s Communist Party – he moved to England in early 1942. For the next five years he was a prominent member of the WIL/RCP in Liverpool. Crookes proved to be an energetic, if independent, organiser. But his relationship with the Deanes, the holy family of Merseyside Trotskyism, was always troubled and often turbulent. Internal squabbles did much to minimise the impact of his indefatigable activism.

In late 1946, he was expelled from the RCP with three other members because of their involvement with a dockers’ rank and file paper, the North-West Vigilant. The initiative had not been discussed with the local full-timer, Frank Ward, and the Vigilant did not reflect the RCP’s politics. He joined the Labour Party and the Club, whose leaders, in concert with Michael Pablo and the Paris leadership of the Fourth International, used the Liverpool expulsions as another stick with which to beat the RCP majority. By 1950, Crookes had broken with Trotskyism and formed what would be an enduring partnership with the tough Garston plumber, Bill Sefton, who had a base in the Garston Labour Party in South Liverpool. It was a venture which 28 years later would see Bill elevated to the second chamber as Lord Sefton of Garston.

Winning his spurs in the hard-fought but unsuccessful attempt to unseat Bessie Braddock as MP for Exchange in 1952–54, at the height of Bevanism, Crookes became for the next 10 years a leading light of the left on the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party (TCLP). Together with Sefton, Stan Maddocks and another former Trotskyist, Howell James, the secretary of the Liverpool Cooperative Party, he was a perennial thorn in the side of the right-wing machine, fine-tuned by Bessie’s consort, Jack ‘Boss’ Braddock. As a city councillor, Crookes often courted disciplinary action. But the group’s long fight for leadership was sealed by the death of Jack Braddock in 1963. By the end of the 1960s, Alderman Crookes was President of the TCLP.

As so often, an alternative leadership proved scarcely more radical than its predecessor. Their eight-year domination of Liverpool Labour politics did nothing to reverse the decline of the city which had been sustained under Braddock. Industrial regeneration was restricted, and new enterprise failed to compensate for the decline of the port. Urban renewal, instantly obsolescent high-rise housing, the break-up of working-class communities and higher rents produced, by 1972, a new split in the party. Two years later, the Liberals gained control of the council. The policies which Crookes espoused did much to prepare control of the council in the 1980s by the successors of the Trotskyists he had bid farewell to four decades earlier. He had no regrets. Like many others, he acknowledged a debt to the Trotskyist movement. He remembered it as ‘an irreplaceable working-class university’, part of his rites of passage to real political life. He was always strongly critical of its purism and sectarianism. He continued to support the Labour Party. He could not see why it could not do for the whole working class what it had done for him.

John McIlroy

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011