Red Flag Over St Pancras
This is the first part of a study of the political tendency associated with John Lawrence – a subject which, so far as we know, has never been dealt with in any detail by historians of the Trotskyist movement in Britain.
As students of these matters will be aware, Lawrence headed a faction within the British section of the Fourth International which fought against Gerry Healy and his supporters during a split in the FI in 1953. But Lawrence’s group formally dissolved itself soon afterwards, and eventually disappeared without trace, while Healy went on to build an organisation which did exercise some political influence, at least by the standards of the far left in Britain. Over the years, tens of thousands of would-be revolutionaries passed through the ranks of the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party, and were indoctrinated with a view of the past in which John Lawrence loomed large as a leading representative of "Pabloite revisionism" but was otherwise written out of history.
Whatever mistakes Lawrence and his comrades may have committed, their tendency deserves a place in the historiography of British Trotskyism, not least as a distinctive example of political work by Marxists in the Labour Party. This study concentrates on the activities of the group in the St Pancras labour movement in the late 1950s. For reasons of space, it will appear in four parts. But look on the bright side. At least it’s shorter than that interminable series on Gerry Healy [The Rise and Fall ...] which the author published in Workers News a few years back.
The cause of this pandemonium was a proposal by the Labour Group to mark May Day by giving council employees a day’s paid holiday and in addition – it was this aspect of the plan which provoked such a hysterical response from the right wing – by flying the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall in place of the Union Jack.
Supporting the proposal to fly the Red Flag, Labour councillor Hilda Lane declared: "It has been the symbol of workers all over the world ever since May Day came about. I am all for showing the people of St Pancras that we do honour to, and dedicate ourselves to the aims of the working class. I hope the day will also come when we shall see it flying over the House of Commons." This was greeted with Tory cries of "Oh, no" and uproar from the galleries. Another Labour councillor, David Goldhill, said that throughout the whole world workers would be celebrating May Day and people all over St Pancras would be pleased to see the Red Flag. At this there was continual hissing from the fascists in the gallery, one of whom leant over and, pointing at Goldhill, shouted: "The Hungarians were pleased to see it, weren’t they?"
Councillor Timothy Donovan, leader of the Conservative minority, asserted to cheers from the Mosleyites that "an overwhelming number of people" in St Pancras were opposed to flying the Red Flag. Donovan denounced the proposal as yet another of the "political antics" in which he claimed the Labour Group habitually engaged. He rejected the argument that the Red Flag represented the labour movement as a whole, and insisted that it was "the symbol throughout the world of Communism". Winding up the debate, the leader of the council, John Lawrence, stated: "Whatever the opposition say, the Red Flag will still fly over the Town Hall and, for my money, over Buckingham Palace as well." The resolution was passed by 31 votes to 21, and the announcement of the result was greeted with boos and cheers. "We will tear the Town Hall apart to reach that flag on May 1, you swines", the fascists shouted.
The subsequent shift to the left in St Pancras Labour Group, and the resulting dramatic transformation of political life in St Pancras, was outcome of an extended period of political work by a group around John Lawrence, Hilda Lane and David Goldhill, all three of whom were veterans of the Trotskyist movement.
John Lawrence had briefly been a Communist Party member in the late 1930s, but had broken from the CP in opposition to its pacifist response to the outbreak of the Second World War. He then joined the Revolutionary Socialist League, the official section of the Fourth International, and had become the leading figure in the Trotskyist Opposition, a faction within the RSL which advocated unity with the "unofficial" Workers International League. David Goldhill had been won to Trotskyism in 1940 while a member of the Independent Labour Party. He made contact with a Trotskyist grouping around Hilda Lane, and after being called up continued to attend discussions at Lane’s flat at Chamberlain House in Ossulston Street, St Pancras, while home on leave. Hilda Lane herself came from a wealthy west country family, which had close connections with the Labour Party leadership. She had joined the party at an early age, and became a member of the ILP, at a time when it was still a Labour affiliate. She went along with the ILP when it decided to break from the Labour Party in 1932, and was then recruited to the Marxist Group, a Trotskyist tendency that had followed Trotsky’s advice and entered the ILP with the aim of winning it to revolutionary politics. George Wagner, who was one of the leading opponents of the Lawrence group in the St Pancras party, would later credit Hilda Lane with providing the "brain power" of the group. He described her as "a very well-read Marxist, of the Trotskyite variety, with no absolutely no sense of humour wherever you looked – she always had the corners of her mouth firmly tucked under her armpits. But those of us who were against her, I was one of them, got on somehow with her bearably well, and when she died, after she had been thrown out of the party, we still all stood in memory of her for two minutes at the management committee".
Lawrence, Lane and Goldhill all became members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the unified Trotskyist organisation formed in 1944, and within the RCP they had supported the faction led by Gerry Healy which argued for entry into the Labour Party. Because the British Trotskyist leadership headed by Jock Haston and Ted Grant carried a majority of the organisation in opposition to this line, in 1947 the Fourth International had split the RCP and authorised the Healy faction to begin entry work as a separate group. The Socialist Fellowship, established in 1949 as the result of a back-to-socialism appeal in Reynolds News by Ellis Smith MP ("We should sing songs again and mean them, the good old socialist songs"), briefly provided a vehicle for the Healyites’ entry work before being proscribed by the Labour Party National Executive Committee in 1951. But the main focus for the activities of "the Club" (as Healy’s group was secretly known) was the paper Socialist Outlook, which first appeared in 1948 with John Lawrence as editor. Conceived as a "broad" publication aimed at the Labour left, it included non-Trotskyists on its editorial board and put forward a left reformist rather than a Trotskyist political line. The paper was also distinguished by a rather soft attitude towards Stalinism. This was partly due to the fact that some of the figures who had been attracted to Outlook were Communist Party fellow travellers opposed to the "cold war socialism" which characterised Labour’s main left publication Tribune in the late 1940s, but more fundamentally it reflected a general tendency in the post-war Fourth International.
In 1953 a bitter dispute erupted in the Healyite group in response to charges by the US Trotskyists that the International’s European leadership headed by Michel Pablo was capitulating to Stalinism. Healy and his supporters, who had till then raised no objections to the politics of the International’s leaders, nevertheless sided with the Americans, while a group around Lawrence backed Pablo. A fierce struggle for control of Socialist Outlook ensued, in which Healy was eventually victorious, although shortly afterwards the paper was proscribed by the NEC. Healy and his supporters having been expelled from the Fourth International, the "Pabloites" under Lawrence’s leadership briefly functioned as the International’s British section, but at the end of 1954 they broke with the FI and from that point effectively ceased to exist as a formal organisation. The Lawrence tendency continued to be active in the Labour Party, however, evolving along lines which had political roots in the earlier Socialist Outlook period, and their work came to be concentrated in Holborn and St Pancras South CLP.
This work reached fruition in John Lawrence’s election as council leader in 1956. At the first Labour Group meeting after the party’s victory in that year’s local election, Fred Powe was re-elected unchallenged as leader. But it was then discovered that Powe had allocated five vacant aldermanic seats to the Tories, on the basis of a "gentlemen’s agreement" he had reached with Tory leader Donovan in 1953, according to which the Conservative opposition would be allowed to appoint aldermen in proportion to the number of seats they held on the council. The de-selection of several sitting right wing councillors and their replacement with left wingers had given the new Labour Group a different political complexion, and they were not going to allow Powe’s backstairs deal with their political enemies to go unchallenged. It was moved that Labour should take all the aldermanic seats, whereupon Powe declared that he would resign if the motion was passed. "They passed it", Peggy Duff recounts. "He resigned. So did the newly-elected chief whip. There was a horrible silence. Then someone nominated John Lawrence from the South Party. There were no further nominations. Fred was out and John was in. St Pancras was also in for five years of turbulence."
The first meeting of the new council gave a taste of things to come, as Tory councillors "seethed with indignation" at the Labour Group’s outrageous behaviour. Their complaints about the broken agreement brought an angry response from John Lawrence. "I don’t agree with that agreement", he shouted at the Tories. "I, for one, think the office of alderman should be abolished. They are not elected people. But, since we are compelled under local government law to make a number of aldermen, so long as we are in control of the council we shall make them Labour aldermen and not Tories. We have scrapped this agreement and you will have to put up with it the best you can." One visiting journalist who witnessed the scene was quite appalled by this breach of political etiquette. "St Pancras used to have a sense of dignity in its civil affairs", he told the North London Press, "and as one who spent many years in the borough I was always proud of the way its affairs were conducted irrespective of party. Last week’s bitterness and acrimony were entirely out of character. What has happened I do not know, but the overthrowing of an agreement in a belligerent and extremely unpleasant manner and the leader of the Labour Council telling the other side to make the best of it was redolent of a totalitarian mind."
By "totalitarian", of course, the speaker intended his audience to read "Communist". This was an accusation which was to become commonplace during Lawrence’s tenure as Council leader, and there appeared to be some substance to it. For a distinctive feature of the Lawrence-Lane-Goldhill group, and one which aroused the resentment of more orthodox Labour Party members, was their political affinity with the Communist Party.
That Trotskyists should try and cooperate with militant workers who followed the CP was not in itself surprising. In his autobiography Reluctant Revolutionary, Harry Ratner, who was at that time a member of the Healy group, argues that Communist Party hardliners were in fact closer to Trotskyism than is sometimes supposed: "In their hearts they were still dedicated revolutionaries. Whatever their doubts and misgivings, they still saw the Soviet Union and its leadership and the leadership of their own party, whatever their faults, as the only hope for the future progress of mankind. They, like us, saw themselves as soldiers in the world struggle for Socialism. The difference between us was on the road to our common goal. The fact that the Stalinist road did not lead to that goal does not detract from what we had in common."
But the Lawrence group’s collaboration with the CP extended to ideological agreement on issues which usually divided Trotskyists and Communists. For example, Lawrence and his comrades shared the CP’s opposition to the demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament, a policy which enjoyed general support within the Labour left. At the 1957 party conference, a unilateralist resolution moved by Norwood delegate Vivienne Mendelson – a member of the Healy tendency – received a large minority vote, causing Aneurin Bevan to break with his former left wing allies and deliver his notorious speech about "not going naked into the conference chamber", in which he denounced the proposal for unilateral disarmament as "an emotional spasm". But the Lawrence group rejected unilateralism and endorsed the Communist Party’s multilateralist call for an international agreement to ban nuclear weapons. And in the case of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which the Healy group greeted as a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, Lawrence and his comrades accepted the official Communist Party view that it was essentially a counter-revolution which had to be suppressed – hence the fascists’ jibe at David Goldhill during the council debate on the Red Flag.
Indeed, on the issue of Hungary, the Lawrence-Lane-Goldhill group adopted an even more intransigent position than many Communist Party members did. In the case of the Holborn and St Pancras CP, Goldhill recalls, a lot of the members "were completely disorientated. And as far as I remember it was the old Trotskyists who were stern about this and said, you can’t support this revolution, it’s an anti-communist revolution – despite the terrible propaganda coming out you have to support the Soviet Union in attacking this. And I think we in fact felt that our job was to stiffen the Communist Party, which was showing signs of disintegrating completely over this. At the time, of course, a large number of well-known people left the Communist Party on that issue. And the papers were full of people beating their breasts and saying this was the last straw, that they could no longer be Communists. We thought that you had to be stern here and this was really what marked whether you believed in revolution or not. I do remember not having any doubts about that".
In November 1956, therefore, when the TUC’s appeal for contributions to its Hungarian refugees’ aid fund was raised on St Pancras and Holborn Trades Council, Hilda Lane joined with CP hardliners in opposing this. Bakers’ union delegate F.W. Copset told a "stormy meeting" that he "wouldn’t give a penny of my cash to this appeal" and went on to suggest that the workers’ uprising "may well be a fascist move to get the capitalists back into power, although we don’t know yet". Hilda Lane agreed that the situation in Hungary was far from clear and argued that any decision concerning a donation should be postponed. "There are many families in England living in shocking housing conditions", she added. "Some of them are living in one room. Yet houses can be offered to these Hungarians as soon as they arrive." Another delegate, E.R. Friedlaender stated that he spoke with considerable feeling on the question, having himself been a refugee from Nazi Germany twenty years earlier. "I say no fascist movement could get a general strike going in the circumstances we have in Hungary", he insisted. "The vast majority of these refugees are trade unionists and working people. I would gladly contribute to a fund which helps them." But the proposal to make a donation was voted down by 11 votes to 8, a decision which was reported by the North London Press under the front-page headline: "Refusal to Aid Hungary. Trades Council Sensation in St Pancras." The TUC later made clear its own equivocal commitment to the defence of democratic principles by suspending the trades council for its action.
One CP loyalist whose breast remained firmly unbeaten over Hungary was Jock Nicolson, who had stood as the party’s candidate for St Pancras North in the 1955 general election. Labour Party members, Nicolson warned in a letter to the North London Press, shouldn’t fall for "Tory red herrings" which were designed to "sow confusion and divisions in the ranks of the working class". "In the past ten years", he wrote, "International Capitalism has spent hundreds of millions, on their own admission, intervening in the internal affairs of the Socialist countries. They have sent in spies, wreckers and Fascist desperadoes to cause unrest and provoke bloodshed and violence. They have exploited genuine grievances, not to solve them in the interests of the Hungarian workers but to restore the rule of landlords and capitalists. Russian intervention prevented that. It also prevented the creation of a Fascist state in the heart of Europe which would have added to the danger of a Third World War. For that, we in Britain should be grateful. As for the Hungarians, conditions are being created that will enable them to overcome the temporary confusion in their ranks and advance in their own way to Socialism on the basis of complete equality and independence."
Trotskyists would normally have been the first to condemn such arguments. In St Pancras, however, it was left to Peggy Duff to defend the Hungarian Revolution. "Of course a lot of the protests about the Russian action in Hungary are hypocritical", she wrote in reply to Nicolson. "Repression is wrong anywhere and everywhere it exists, whether in Cyprus, Kenya, Guatemala or Hungary. But this applies also to Communists. Have they any right to protest about British and American actions if they attempt to justify the use of Russian tanks, not against Fascists and counter-revolutionaries, but against the working people of Hungary, against Communists like Nagy and Szigetti, against Social Democrats like Anna Kethly?" In any case, she advised, Nicolson ought to be careful: "The same sort of arguments were used by Communists in the 1930s against those of us who protested at the Stalinist trials. Twenty years later Khrushchev made a nonsense of them. Some latter-day Khrushchev may well arise in 1976 or, I sincerely hope, earlier, to make him eat his words."
Another feature of the Lawrence group which separated them from traditional Trotskyism was their rejection of the established entryist tactic of building a group which maintains its own internal discipline and democratic-centralist structure while working inside a reformist party. "As far as Lawrence was concerned", David Goldhill reveals, "we were virtually to dissolve the organisation. The thought was that Trotskyists, being so much better trained, would naturally keep together and hold their political understanding inside the Labour Party without the need of there being another organisation – and you couldn’t influence the Labour Party if you were obviously a secret faction with secret meetings, and came along to actual meetings with everything sorted out." It was in line with this approach that, after losing control of Socialist Outlook, the Lawrence group made no attempt to bring out another paper. Instead, Goldhill points out, "there was a series of pamphlets, like Tom Braddock’s Victory for Socialism – so that was in lieu of a paper, a whole series of policy pamphlets, by Trotskyists in conjunction with left wing Labour Party people".
Because of this looseness of organisation, the idea of a distinct "Lawrence group" is perhaps misleading. The St Pancras Labour Group and the South Party did contain what in later years would be called a "hard left", but it involved figures who had very different political backgrounds from Lawrence, Lane and Goldhill. Among these Labour leftists of non-Trotskyist origin were Jock (today Lord) Stallard, Covent Garden porter and TGWU branch secretary Bernie Holland, print union activist Charlie Taylor and St Pancras Trades Council secretary Phil Sheridan. In addition there was a softer left mainly based in the North Party, of which Peggy Duff was perhaps the representative figure, who either favoured a less uncompromising political line on the council or rejected the core group’s sympathies with the politics of the CP.
The various political shadings on the Labour left in St Pancras were, however, united in their support for the radical stand which the council adopted under John Lawrence’s leadership on the question of housing policy – an issue which was of central importance in an area where there was a severe shortage of affordable rented accommodation for the working class. One of the council’s first actions after Lawrence became leader was to reduce rents for its tenants. It was, Peggy Duff commented, "probably the last time a council in Britain actually lowered rents. Naturally the Tories were furious". As the Tory government moved to dismantle existing controls on the housing market, St Pancras Council adopted an attitude of defiance. Successive Acts in 1955-6 forced local authorities to hand back to private ownership the property they had requisitioned during and after the war to house the homeless, and their power to subsidise rents was restricted to individuals in financial need. But St Pancras rejected the imposition of a means test and continued a general subsidy for tenants in derequisitioned properties. The notorious Rent Act of 1957, which decontrolled rents in the private sector, was bitterly opposed by the local Labour Party. The South Party headquarters in Hampstead Road was opened as an advice centre for private tenants, while Lawrence and his comrades helped to launch the Holborn and St Pancras Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee, which organised resistance to evictions of private tenants unable to pay the new rents. The Lawrence group also fought to commit the party nationally to a policy of militant opposition to the Rent Act.
At the 1957 Labour Party conference, in the debate on a motion urging the repeal of the Rent Act, Lawrence called on a future Labour government to reverse all the rent increases that had resulted from the Act. He was particularly scathing about a contribution by leading Labour right winger Alice Bacon, who rejected this proposal on the grounds that it was impossible to put the clock back. "Why can’t we put the clock back?" Lawrence demanded. "The Tories have put it forward and said we must pay rent increases. Why can’t we repeal the Rent Act and put rents back to where they were before? Why can’t we? There is nothing reactionary about putting the clock back when the clock is wrong. What would you say to tenants who are worried out of their lives and who are being asked for an extra £1 or 30s for the dirty rat-ridden hovels where I am living? When I go back they are going to ask me, when I tell them we are going to repeal the Rent Act, ‘What about this increase?’ I will say, ‘When we get a Labour government and they set up a tribunal you can make an appeal.’ That is not good enough. I want to be able to go back to them and say, ‘As soon as you get a Labour government your rent goes back to what it was before the Tories brought in their rotten Act’."
In addition to their basic commitment to improving the material conditions of local people, under Lawrence’s leadership the St Pancras Labour Group engaged in a number of high profile actions with the aim of publicising their commitment to a fighting policy and inspiring a similar spirit of militancy in the working class. One such action, which created a scandal in the local and national press, was the decision in March 1957 to cut the mayor’s allowance from £1,779 to £300 a year. It was unacceptable, Lawrence insisted, that ratepayers’ money should be wasted on social functions which were open only to the select few. A Labour council had an obligation to dispense with "all this pomp and tradition", and the mayor’s official engagements should be restricted to socially useful activities such as attending children’s parties in local schools. In line with the new egalitarian policy, it was also decided to withdraw the mayor’s car, and Lawrence announced that "in future our mayor will have to go about the borough by public transport". The argument put forward by the then mayor, Alfred Hurst, that he still needed the mayoral car even if it was just for attending school parties, received short shrift from Lawrence. "What’s wrong with the mayor going to a schoolchildren’s party on a number 68 bus?" he asked.
This was a "sad and sorry decision", the North London Press commented editorially. "What is the point of having a mayor without pomp and tradition? To a great many people he is the embodiment of local government, the figurehead who alone epitomises civic pride and local independence." In a letter to the paper, David Goldhill rejected these arguments outright. Most people he had spoken to didn’t even know the name of the mayor, Goldhill pointed out. "Certainly no one considers it necessary for ‘civic pride and local independence’ that a mayor should have to attend a large number of balls and dinners, together with councillors, officials and dignitaries, and to which ordinary people are never asked, although of course they are permitted to pay the bills. These functions serve no useful purpose and make mayors and councillors feel they are different from ordinary folk; there are far too many things that the council should be doing to bring decent living conditions to everyone in St Pancras for even a small amount of money to be wasted in this way."
The next action by St Pancras Labour Group to hit the headlines was the decision at a council meeting on 1 May 1957 to repudiate the local authority’s statutory obligation to organise Civil Defence. This issue had been simmering for some time in the labour movement, where it was generally recognised that training a Civil Defence Corps in emergency procedures and basic first aid techniques was both a waste of money and a conscious attempt to deceive the civilian population as to the horrific consequences of a nuclear attack. Labour-controlled Coventry City Council had refused to implement Civil Defence for these reasons in 1954, although they had backed down later under threat of councillors being surcharged for the cost of the government administering CD centrally. That same year, resolutions calling for St Pancras Borough Council to follow the example of Coventry had been passed by the general management committees of both the North and South parties. But because a majority of the then Labour Group was opposed to this, the decision had never been carried out.
The Tory government responded to the St Pancras decision, as it had in Coventry, by appointing a commissioner to take over the organisation of Civil Defence. This led to protests from the Labour Group, who had announced that they were going to convert the Civil Defence headquarters in Camden High Street into flats in order to provide housing the homeless. On 4 June, when the commissioner was due to arrive, the Labour Group held a demonstration outside the building, and John Lawrence chained himself to the gates in an attempt to prevent the commissioner entering the premises. Peggy Duff, who was ill with jaundice at the time, recalls that she was dragged out of bed by a telephone call asking her to organise press coverage of the event:
"So I arrived in the High Street to find a small group of John’s supporters, including several councillors, parading up and down outside the CD HQ with suitable banners: ‘Ban the Bomb’, ‘Destroy the Bomb or it will Destroy You’, ‘Stop the Tests’. It was, of course, 1957, and the British tests at Christmas Island were imminent. After some time a policeman arrived and plodded up and down the street beside the paraders. Now and again a very disapproving member of the WVS, who shared the building with CD, pushed her way through the gate. Then, when the copper was standing, half asleep, some way up the road, John produced a rather large and ostentatious padlock and chain and attached himself to the bars of the gate. For a time nothing happened. Nobody noticed. Shoppers hurried by and never turned to look. The policemen went on plodding up and down. Buses passed to and fro. No press arrived. There was the leader of the council chained to the CD gates – and nobody had turned to look. I had a horrible feeling that nobody ever would.
"Then at last the policeman as he passed saw that something was amiss. He stopped. He stared. ‘Why, sir’, he said, ‘who did that to you?’ ‘Nobody’, said John. ‘I did it myself.’ ‘But why did you do that, sir?’ the simple copper asked. ‘I did it as a protest against nuclear weapons’, John simply replied. The policemen hurried off to telephone a higher authority. Shoppers continued to pass by, unconcerned. Then, at last, a press photographer. Then another. Then a police car with more important, peak-capped coppers. Then gradually a crowd, at last."
Lawrence shouted to the crowd: "We want these premises for housing, not for useless Civil Defence purposes. There is no defence against the H-bomb. There are 6,000 people on our housing list and we want to provide homes for four families to live here." The police, however, produced a large pair of bolt-cutters and released Lawrence from his chains. They forced the crowd to disperse and took the names of the demonstrators, though no arrests were made. Eventually the police car drove off, unwittingly bearing a "Ban the Bomb" placard which had been stuck behind its back number plate.
On 14 June the Labour Group held a public meeting to explain its case against Civil Defence. First the audience watched a 20-minute film, Shadow of Hiroshima, which revealed what had happened to those who had survived the nuclear attack on the Japanese city in 1945. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Jack Redman who, evidently undaunted by the prospect of travelling on a 68 bus, had recently succeeded Alfred Hurst as mayor. Introducing John Lawrence, who was the main speaker, Redman stated: "I have never met a young councillor with so much pluck, so much guts and so much fighting spirit. It is a pleasure to serve under him."
Lawrence spoke for an hour justifying the council’s stand. He told the meeting: "Normally the borough council is a very homely body of people, a very practical body of people who spend most of their time cleaning your dustbins, getting rid of your bugs and building your houses. Now we are asked to carry out the government’s essential defence policy and we say that is a complete waste of ratepayers’ money." He continued: "Our Civil Defence Corps consists of wardens with whistles and one telephone box. It is clear that if an H-bomb dropped here, most of London would be destroyed. Even if you can patch up a broken leg, the amount of radioactivity floating around the area is such that people will go on dying for years and no CD Corps will be able to stop that. CD is a deception of the people and we want no part of it."
The North London Press reported: "Councillor Lawrence pointed out, in answer to a question, that CD in the past had cost the council just under £2000. The government had paid the rest of the cost – about £5000. ‘The bill will be at least £7000’, he said. ‘It might be very much more.’ He paused, chuckled, and said: ‘But we haven’t paid it yet.’ A voice at the front of the hall: ‘What happens if you don’t pay?’ Councillor Lawrence: ‘If we don’t pay it, the government comes and takes it out of us somehow. But as we haven’t got much which can be taken from us, presumably we will go to the Scrubs or Pentonville. What I want to know is – if we don’t pay, will you back us up?’ There were cries of ‘Yes’ and for more than two minutes the audience cheered their approval of this suggestion. Said Councillor Lawrence: ‘That’s all I wanted to know’."
The event which prompted Transport House’s first intervention into the local Labour Party occurred in January 1958. At that month’s meeting of the Holborn and St Pancras South general management committee, a resolution was narrowly passed which censured maverick right-winger and local party member Woodrow Wyatt for his participation in a BBC TV Panorama programme broadcast in November 1957. The programme had made allegations (well-founded ones, it later turned out) of ballot-rigging in the Communist-controlled Electrical Trades Union following Les Cannon’s defeat by CP member Jack Frazer in an election to the ETU executive. Complaints had been raised previously within the South Party about Wyatt’s attacks on "Communist infiltration" in the trade unions, and for the CP-sympathising left in the party this latest exercise in red-baiting was the final straw.
The resolution adopted at the January GMC further called on the National Executive Committee to remove Wyatt from the approved list of possible parliamentary candidates – which turned out to be a bit of a shot in the foot by the left. For although the NEC agreed to meet a delegation from the GMC the following week, it completely rejected their arguments and issued a statement repudiating the attack on Wyatt and refusing to remove him from the panel of candidates. Press reports also indicated that the NEC intended to investigate both the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party and the St Pancras Labour Group. The GMC of the South Party in February was attended by a Transport House official, who disqualified 21 left wing trade union delegates on the grounds that they were not resident in the constituency – even though the NEC itself had previously waived the residency qualification in recognition of the fact that many trade unionists worked and met in the constituency but did not live there.
The NEC was no doubt encouraged in its determination to do something about the St Pancras situation by a much-publicised incident on 24 February at Holborn Hall in Gray’s Inn Road, when Henry Brooke MP, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, addressed a meeting organised by Holborn and St Pancras Conservative Association on the subject of the Rent Act. More than 500 people attended the meeting, a large proportion of them supporters of the Holborn and St Pancras Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee intent on showing their feelings about the Tory government’s anti-working class legislation. Leaflets headed "Minister of Evictions" and "Crocodile Tears from Henry Brooke" were distributed by the Committee. While Brooke was tried to deliver his speech there was a continual chanting and stamping of feet and shouts of "Resign", while coloured balloons bearing various anti-Tory slogans were released.
Eventually the Tory minister gave up trying to make himself heard above the uproar and invited questions from the audience. He had time to take only one before the meeting descended into total chaos. "There was a clash between the activists on the floor and the fascists, which resulted in a bundle", Charlie Taylor recalls, "and the stage was stormed. I think Bernie Holland excelled himself there. He put a chair over one of the fascists’ heads, who’d punched him. Anyway the meeting ended in disarray. The dignified Tories retired to a back room, and we took over. And then the police arrived, cleared us all out." Brooke was escorted through a side door by six policemen to his car. Before leaving for the House of Commons, he told the press: "This shows the depths of what would happen if Communists ever came to control this country."
The incident was played up in the national papers as an example of political hooliganism by the left, and the Daily Mirror devoted its front page to the incident, featuring a photograph with Bernie Holland grappling with a fascist. Lena Jeger, the Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras South, was prevailed on to make an apology to Henry Brooke in the House of Commons. In reality, despite the chaotic scenes, nobody was seriously hurt and no arrests were made. After it was all over, the protestors went round the corner to the Bourne Estate, where Lawrence addressed an open-air meeting on the Rent Act along with Jock Nicolson, the Communist candidate for North St Pancras in the forthcoming London County Council elections.
(To be continued)