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Popular Politics Project: Radical Left Politics in the North East in the 1970s
Interview transcript: Steve Grinter
Date and place of birth: 4 May 1951, Southampton
Interviewer: Peter Brabban
Date of interview: 29 September 2011
Political allegiance or membership of interviewee at time: International Marxist Group
Geographical area(s) covered: South Northumberland
Present political allegiance: Labour Party
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
PB: Steve, what brought you into left politics?
SG: I suppose I’ve always been a leftie since I became politically conscious. I got involved, as a teenager in the YS (Young Socialists) in Crawley. I was still at school then, a number of my friends gravitated towards the YS which was, perhaps, the most active of the political groups at the time.
PB: What were the issues that brought you in?
SG: I suppose a lot of the issues that we have today. Unemployment and generally a sense of the injustice of capitalism.
PB: Domestic rather than international?
SG: Both, both, I suppose it was the industrial issues, domestically that were one of the radicalising factors, there were strikes and so on, and I remember in 1968 there were quite a lot of industrial disputes . One of my friends was a shop steward in the GMB or GMWU as it was then and I learnt a lot from him and I met one of the local organisers for what became the WRP (Workers Revolutionary Party) and started going to political education meetings and went to YS activities, I went to one or two rallies with Gerry Healy as the speaker and he made quite an impression in those days. I suppose that I was rebelling against what I saw as injustice generally.
PB: And when you put your name on the dotted line it was for the International Marxist Group ?
SG: Yeah, that was when I came up to the North East. I had been working at Gatwick airport in the late 60s early seventies and was a shop steward for the TGWU and was made redundant in 1972 and I got a place in the teacher training college in Northumberland. Came up here simply because I was interested in politics and good at maths and that was a bit of an unusual combination of subjects to do for teacher training. Northumberland College was one of the few that offered it so that was how I ended up here. The other college was actually a woman’s college. So I actually had no choice if I wanted to do those two subjects. When I came up to college I joined the Socialist Society, in fact I helped to form it, and I was influenced by one of my friends who was a tutor at the college, Steve Whitley, who’s still alive, he was in the IMG (International Marxist Group) and recruited me to the IMG. During my time at college I was heavily involved in student politics with the NUS (National Union of Students) and I became president of the students union in my final year and had a sabbatical . We had a number of occupations and student campaigns and so on which was quite exciting at the time. In fact the Steve Whitley campaign was quite important in student politics at the time, with significant success because we won his reinstatement when he was dismissed for supporting the student unions activities. We occupied the admin and lobbied around the governors of the college had a platform at the NUS national conference and got a lot of support from a lot of the trade unions in the area too, including, obviously the teaching unions but also some of the industrial unions and trades councils.
PB: Of course in the 1970s we are looking at some of the first cuts that were being introduced
SG: that’s right, my college, Northumberland College, was one of the 24 teacher training colleges that Shirley Williams, the Education Secretary, closed. So one of our occupations was around defending the college and we had a campaign joining with the staff, both the teaching and the non academic staff. Ultimately that failed and the place is a police headquarters, ironically enough. (laughter) That was an interesting campaign, of course it was a national campaign because there were 23 other colleges announced for closure at the same time, including Alnwick college up in North Northumberland.
My other political activities, I was involved nationally in the IMG too, and the IMG for me was less sectarian than a number of the other left groups, which was one of its main attractions for me, although there was a very fierce internal debate around different factions and tendency’s and so in the organisation. Quite a wide range actually; those debates helped , I felt very eh, I wasn’t in the leadership of the IMG or even in the leadership of the factions but you learned a lot from that debate about the theoretical basis of Trotskyism or Marxism.
PB: I was going to ask what you got out of your membership of IMG. You say you got a lot out of the debates and you learned from them?
SG: yeah, but I suppose my main focus was on the activity side of politics. The campaigning and the union work. Then it was student union work and then subsequently it was union work. But I did find the political debates gave me a theoretical basis for what I was doing industrially. Certainly I had a strong commitment to the principles of Trotskyism and Marxism in those days. And still have, frankly, a strong sympathy with them.
PB: So you would regard yourself at the time as being a revolutionary?
PB: What were the big activities that stand out in your mind, when it comes to the 1970’s? you talk about the student occupations and the fight against closures. Were their other activities that provoked your imagination?
SG: I was in college until 1976 and during that time most of my political activities revolved around student politics although we did have a substantial IMG branch; Tyneside branch. At one time we had twenty odd members.
PB: Whereabouts did the branch meet?
SG: We met at the Bridge (hotel) and other places, some meetings were held there.
PB: That place has got such a heritage
SG: We used to alternate between business meetings and political discussion. I think it was every fortnight , I can’t remember how frequent it was that we had a political education meeting to which we’d invite, not only members, but also sympathisers.
PB Were you expected to recruit other people?
SG: Yes, yes, we were definitely, we had various responsibilities as members ,obviously these were financial, we had to sell the paper, which wasn’t so hard for me being at college, I suppose we used to sell twenty to twenty five papers a week up there and we’d also do a sale in town, there were a couple of places in town on a Saturday.
PB: Did you enjoy that?
SG: Yeah it was OK, having been involved previously in YS it was nothing like as arduous as trying to flog ‘Keep Left’ and ‘ Workers Press’, when that came out as a daily. That was massive. It was ‘Newsline’ until I can’t remember when ‘Workers Press’ was launched . I do recall it was a massive, a massive burden to flog that daily. At least ‘Red Weekly’ was weekly. We went from fortnightly to weekly and that was manageable.
PB: Everybody on the left had some sympathy for WRP members with daily sales of the paper.
SG: Frankly, I still have some respect for the WRP from those days. I admired the discipline and the commitment and the work that they did. Albeit, looking back they were quite sectarian and in some ways misguided in their approach. But I wouldn’t join in the witch hunt against them.
PB: What were your views of other left groups? And did you come across them very much?
SG: As I mentioned before the tape was switched on we had quite a bit of contact with the IS (International Socialists). I had quite a lot of friends in the IS from my home in Crawley. Dave Ward was one of them, he was a local IS organiser , he was in the POEU (Post Office Engineering Union) in fact he was on the national executive of the POEU, when he was still in the IS. I always had a respect and a sympathy with the IS / SWP although I suppose from the IMG side we used to think of the IS as being what we used to call workerist and they were dismissive of student politics and only interested in the industrial work. At the time, and I still do think that the IMG had too much focus on student politics and insufficient focus on the industrial side but there has to be a balance somewhere for a left group in that regard.
PB: Can you remember how you felt about the Labour Party? Because they were very prominent just because of the number of elections during the 70s.
SG: Well, I suppose, it was the Marxist approach of hold your nose and vote Labour. There were no illusions but recognising that there was a huge number of well intentioned workers in the Labour Party and obviously the Labour Party was the party that had hegemony, so they were the party you definitely couldn’t ignore or compete with on any kind of equal basis. That’s why I joined the Labour Party in 1972. (0:13:15.3)
PB: I personally recall campaigning against the Labour government because of the cuts in the later part of the 70’s. Did you take part in any of those?
SG: Definitely, oh yes, very much so, in fact I worked for the T&G in the late seventies; 76 to 79. In those days Jack Jones was the General Secretary, when I started working for them, subsequently Moss Evans took over and then Ron Todd. The T&G was thriving and focused on political debates in those days at every level. We had a right wing regional secretary who was my boss, Joe Mills, who was a populist and he was chairman of the Regional Labour Party, and, of course, knowing that I was a member of the Labour Party I used to get roped into things, he used to spend a lot of time trying to get me to speak on right wing motions at conferences and so on, which I never did I’m pleased to say. But I was under a lot of pressure to toe the party line. But I actually joined the party consciously with the intention of causing the maximum havoc inside the party as possible. We did have some possibilities to do that because we formed a new branch at Ponteland, comprising of mainly students from the college, members of the Socialist Society who were more or less like minded in their attitude to the party. So we used to, basically, carry the most contentious and revolutionary motions possible to submit to regional conference and to the national Labour Party. We used to get the most provocative speakers to address public meetings that we organised in the name of the Labour Party which obviously brought us into conflict with the establishment quite frequently .
PB: So were you comfortable with an entryist position ?
SG: As I said it was basically from a point of view of ‘no illusions’ that the Labour Party was ever going to bring about a significant progressive change or redress the balance of inequality in society. It was mainly for the purpose of engaging with the left, of convincing them and engaging them in revolutionary activities; IMG activities or Broad Left activities. I think that to some extent some of that activity there was always a risk that when you collaborate or when you engage with the enemy that you either get subsumed or create the wrong impression about your motives, and so on.
PB: How effective do you think you were, and IMG was of influencing the Labour Party?
SG: At the margins, at the margins. But you could ask the same question about what influence did the IMG have generally (laughter) clearly it was marginal. In the context of the far left the IMG was a player , but in the context of the far left the IS were by far the biggest organisation and the most influential and then if you move right there was the CP (Communist Party) and so.
PB: Do you think there was any particular area where the IMG were effective, or had a greater impact?
SG: We had membership in one or two industrial plants, a few people in the car industry for example both at Leyland and at Cowley and also in the building industry, of course, there was the Shrewsbury two and the Shrewsbury twenty four , we had members involved in there. But the main influence was in student politics where we had representation and leadership positions in a lot of colleges and universities. A number of national executive posts on the NUS at one time. I’ve forgotten what year it was but it might have been 72 or 73 when we had two or three; Val Coultas , I remember from Oxford Polytechnic and one or two IMG members or sympathisers were involved. I remember Alistair Stewart (the newsreader) he was Deputy President (of the NUS) the year that I was on sabbatical with the NUS, he tried to recruit me to the Broad Left, I told him where to go (chortles). He was a solid CP fellow traveller at the time, left Labour. That’s how he got that position.
PB: So how about any of the big political events of the 1970’s, did you get caught up in any of those?
SG: The period that I worked for the T&G was quite interesting because there were lots of things happening then. The employment protection legislation came out, you had the health and safety regulations, The Health and Safety at Work Act was 1974 but the regulations didn’t come out until 1979, We were involved in a lot of education work around that with shop stewards and so on. Trying to build on the rights that had been introduced in the Employment Protection Act, which were significant, workers rights for time off and facilities and time off for training and all kinds of things they didn’t have before. My work was quite heavily involved in building on that and providing a whole range of training courses for shop stewards and activists. Most of those were bread and butter issues, grievance handling, health and safety monitoring and what have you. But we did have a political edge as well how union members and activists and reps could affect politics at different levels. The main focus for the T&G was through the Labour Party. But they did have a, mainly under the influence of the CP, a focus that was wider than that and there was a definite encouragement to engage with Trades Council activities as well, which tended to be more political.
PB: How about the watershed dispute at Grunwicks, did you get involved in any way with that?
SG: Well I went to a couple of the demos, I can’t quite remember what year that was, perhaps 1977 and 78. I wasn’t involved much directly with it I would say. Being up here working in the North East it was a little bit remote. But we did go down to support the demos a couple of times. I remember that Jack Dromey was a T&G officer at the time and quite influential in the dispute although it was Roy Grantham of APEX had the majority of the members in the early days of the dispute.
PB: I think that Jack Dromey came out of that dispute best of all
SG: Yes, yes he did.
PB: Perhaps I’m being just a bit too cynical (laughter). I am interested to know whether there was an issue in the North East that brought the left together, in the way that Grunwicks did in the South ?
SG: There probably were issues that brought us together. In those days Newcastle Trades Council was a big focus for a lot of campaigning activity, both industrially but more in the community, around cuts and those kind of issues. There were interesting times when we look at the formations of the bookshop, Days of Hope and the Socialist Centre and the role of the Trades Council and the role of the Trades Union Studies and Information Unit (TUSIU) and the Community Development Projects. The work of Colin Randall and John Darwin, those people had a quite significant influence in both the Trades Council and the political steer particularly in community politics. Colin Randall was the secretary of the Trades Council for many years, John Darwin eh, when I lived in Newcastle I was the constituency secretary for the Labour Party in Newcastle North for a few years and John Darwin was the chairman he’d worked at the TUSIU. One Little aside I recall that T Dan Smith, he’d come out of prison, it must have been in 76 or something, having been collared with Andy Cunningham and John Poulson . He’d resigned from the Labour Party before he’d got sent down, because he knew that if he didn’t he’d have been expelled. So having come out of prison he got associated with the campaign for the rehabilitation of ex offenders. He was arguing that he’d served his time, and that he wasn’t guilty anyway so he should be allowed to rejoin the Labour Party. So we had to process his application to rejoin, his local ward, which was Moorside rejected his application, they didn’t want him, he then appealed to the constituency, which was where I came in, and the constituency rejected his application. So then he appealed to the region and the region rejected it and finally he went to the National Executive who also rejected it. Interestingly, there were a lot of people who you might think better of supported his application, including I remember Roy Hattersley . (0:25;57.2) T Dan Smith had an interesting history in politics, in Irish politics particularly, Irish republicanism. But he’d long since forgotten those by the time he was leader of Newcastle City Council.
PB: By the time we get to the later 70s a lot of people on the left in Britain were spending a lot of time engaged in the fight against the National Front, being part of Rock against Racism and the Anti Nazi League. Was that any part of your agenda?
SG: Not at that time particularly. I worked for the TUC for a time in the eighties and at that time the TUC were very active in tacking racism. You could say they were jumping on the band wagon (PB: only a decade too late) but actually to be fair, I have no illusions about the TUC, but I would say they did become a more effective organisation, in terms of delivering campaigns and so on. As you said too late, but by the late eighties they had transformed from being a bureaucratic carthorse into an organisation that was more action oriented. All kinds of backward and reactionary policies on all lots of things, but on the whole the TUC at that time (late 80’s) had much more progressive policies than the Labour Party, even the Labour Party in opposition. So it did transform a bit from being a divided organisation with a focus on documents and paper to one that was more action oriented.
PB: On a personal level how, and why did you leave IMG ?
SG: I think that I got a bit disillusioned with, and more aware than I had been before of the sectarianism of left politics. It’s a bit of a joke, isn’t it that the closer you are politically the more fractious, bitter and acrimonious the debate. I got a bit fed up with that to be honest and thought that life was too short to ‘dance on the head of a pin’ with other political organisations.
PB: It wasn’t an ideological shift?
SG: No it was more about the sectarianism of the debate that turned me off really and I suppose I became just too busy. I had a very demanding job, and I was getting married and had a young family. It was very demanding work with the T&G and later for the TUC.
PB: When was it that you left?
SG: I can’t remember for sure, but it must have been after the end of the seventies. It must have been 81 or 82 I think although I wouldn’t like to be held to that. I actually went to work for thye TUC half way through the miners strike in 84 that was unbelievable timing, really. I was working at Congress House during that time
PB: If you look back at the Seventies and the politics of the seventies, what jumps out at you?
SG: I suppose what gave me most hope was the ‘Days of Hope’ bookshop and the Socialist Centre.
INTERVIEW ENDED AS RECORDER BATTERIES GAVE OUT.