Big Flame

1970-1984

The News on Sunday Project

Posted by happyhenry on September 12, 2010

Possibly the most ambitious project to come out of Big Flame was News on Sunday. The aim was to set up a radical campaigning tabloid Sunday newspaper, to challenge the right-wing domination of the media. It was created, and launched on 26th April 1987. We raised £6.5 million. And lost it all in 6 weeks, though continued to publish for a further six months – funded by the TGWU in partnership with the eccentric millionaire Owen Oyston.

The idea came from Ben Lowe, and was first set out in the Big Flame discussion bulletin in 1978. His idea was to go beyond the ambitions of newspapers like Socialist Worker and the Morning Star and establish a paper that was a popular tabloid – selling in the newsagent alongside the mainstream press. His belief was that, if we could establish sales of 100,000, it could be commercially viable. He was to be joined by Alan Hayling (a long-time Big Flame member who had been a TV producer before going to work at Ford on the assembly line), who fronted the project, built alliances and co-ordinated the raising of the funding that made it possible.

By this time Big Flame had dissolved but this was certainly a project inspired by the ideas of BF. Many other projects inspired by left-wing groups did happen then, but News on Sunday was probably unique in the scale of its ambition, as shown by the £6.5 million needed to make it happen.

Alan and Ben brought together a range of people on the left, inspired by the idea of taking on the mainstream media rather than just complaining about it. All working for free, and with no promise of any reward, a rather good pilot edition was produced in the Autumn of 1985.

With persuasive market research – on the basis of the dummy edition – and a strong business plan, Alan persuaded Guinness Mahon (a City of London merchant bank) to take it to the city. But the mainstream City investors could not understand it. “Where do the founders make their money?” was a common question. I don’t think we ever consider making money out of it – not beyond a basic salary. That wasn’t our motivation, we wanted to change the world. To most city investors the lack of a financial incentive was just weird and they were out. (It was the equivalent of going on Dragons Den and asking for a large amount of money, but then saying they could have 100% of the shares.)

I was one of the group known as the Founders (though I stepped down when I was employed on the paper). Although the newspaper was owned by the shareholders, the Founders held a Golden share, designed to protect the values of the paper and prevent a takeover by the likes of Murdoch or Maxwell.

We also, over many months, set down the political charter on which the newspaper was to be based. This was intended as the guiding principles. The idea was that just as every journalist on the Mail knows, almost intuitively, the Mail angle on any story so would any journalist on News on Sunday know the angle to approach news from. In practice, though pinned up around the office, it was largely ignored and people went with their gut feeling – which was sometimes a radical and alternative interpretation and sometimes wasn’t.

The Independent had just succeeded in raising the investment it needed and it always struck me that there was a far less clear gap for that newspaper than for a radical Sunday tabloid. It seemed very unfair that the city had been prepared to back it simply because of the experience and the authority of the management team, but not to back our project. Sadly, they turned out to be right.

The money was raised from trade unions, from individuals and – the majority – from local authority pension funds. To my mind this was the Big Flame approach at its best – building bridges, working imaginatively and with great ambition. And there was no subterfuge. We laid out very clearly, in the Charter, what the paper was about. Core to our argument was that it could only succeed commercially if it was genuinely radical. I always described it as a left-wing version of the Mail on Sunday. I remember Ron Todd (General Secretary of the TGWU, who invested £550,000) questioning the position on Ireland, which called for British withdrawal. He was won round after Alan pointed out that this was exactly what a recent Daily Mirror editorial had called for.

I remember well the party on the night where the offer closed and we had succeeded, we had raised £6.5 million. So many on the left had told us it could not be done but we had worked with the system and raised the money. It was an incredible moment.

If that was the Big Flame approach at its best, we were about to see the approach at its worst. The revolutionary left, Big Flame included, was oppositional. It campaigned against things. We had no experience of organising anything except political struggles. I could check with ArchiveArchie but I doubt there was a single article in the Discussion Bulletin, over more than a decade, on how to manage an organisation.

Shortly after publication, as the crisis hit, a ‘company fireman’ called Roy Barber was called in to sort things out. I remember him being very puzzled. “I get called into companies in crisis and normally I find de-motivated people who are really not very good at their jobs. Here you have highly motivated and talented people – and yet you are heading for bankrupcy.”

Those involved will point to many explanations of what went wrong. Some say it was because John Pilger (involved during the dummy period) was pushed out, some that it was because of his behaviour. Some that we should have been based in London, not Manchester. Some blame Alan Hayling. Some blame Keith Sutton, the man we hired as editor (after he produced the strikers’ Wapping Post during the Times newspaper strike). Some blame the advertising agency with their inflamatory slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”.

I believe we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed. It was full of endless meetings, back-biting, lack of clear responsibility and a sense of blame if you got things wrong. The debate over “No tits” became so heated that there were groups of people who wouldn’t talk to you if they suspected you of supporting it. You had to watch what you said and who you said it to. It was, with hindsight, what you would expect if you put a group of 80s lefties in charge of running an organisation. And I include myself in that.

When Vanessa Engle (who worked as an editorial assistant at News on Sunday) was producing the BBC2 programme on the newspaper, she asked when I knew it would fail – imagining I would say 26th April 1987, the Sunday of the first issue, when we realised how low the sales were. I replied that it was two months earlier. It was the end of a heated day of meetings when we had decided to pulp £85,000 of posters that were ruled unacceptable. I walked round the block and wept, for I knew then the newspaper could not succeed. It wasn’t even that I liked the posters. But I knew an organisation that was capable of agreeing to commission and spend this amount of money, and then – in its schizophrenic decision-making structure – decide to ditch it, could not succeed.

We, those who set up the newspaper, took over the management and hired a group of journalists. I often think it would have better to do the opposite, to hire a group of managers and take positions as journalists. Many of us knew how to write, as we showed in the dummy. And we knew very clearly the radical angle we wanted to put on the news. We had no idea how to manage.

The result is best expressed in the title of the book about News on Sunday, “Disaster” (by News on Sunday journalists Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie). The advertising – the TV ads and posters – that survived the internal rows was feeble. An argument with retailers over the % of the cover price they received resulted in lack of enthusiasm on their part. And the paper itself, in my view, lacked the radical political bite that we had envisaged – and had succeeded in producing in the dummy.

The paper only rarely lived up to our hopes and was often hard to distinguish from competitors like the Mirror and the People. I remember one shameful cover story ‘exclusive’ proclaiming that a convicted rapist was to be freed because his victims had been found to be prostitutes. The article, from any radical perspective, should have been asking why that made any difference. It was published from this angle because we had got hold of the transcript, not yet made public, and so were first to reveal this information. (And, in fact, the transcript revealed that the judge still regarded him as guilty but he got off on a technicality.)

On Ireland I did manage to get a freelance journalist commissioned form the North, who could give the nationalist perspective and had great connections with the Republicans. Her first artic le, published in one of the pre-publication dummies, was hard hitting. But then I discovered it was, word for word, the same article as she had written for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. She couldn’t understand why that was a problem and wouldn’t agree to write different articles for us. It would have made News on Sunday an easy target for some.

After the SAS killed 8 IRA men in an ambush I did write an editorial asking whether eight more mourning families would make peace more likely. To my astonishment Keith Sutton published it. (I had joined the project partly because of my desire to be involved in journalism but this was the only thing I ever wrote for News on Sunday.) But after that the Ireland coverage reverted to the media norm of British troops versus the terrorists.

By the time of launch the costs had ballooned to the point where News on Sunday needed to sell 800,000 to break even. This was a long way from Ben’s original hope of 100,000 but, given the market research sales predictions of over 1 million, didn’t seem at the time to be a problem. It would be interesting to see what we would have created if all our plans had been based on a break even at – say 250,000. A tougher business person could have insisted on it.

In week 1 it sold barely half a million and we knew it would go down from there, as all new launches did. Owen Oyston, a Lancashire multi-millionaire who had made his money in estate agency, was already an investor and stepped in to try and rescue the paper.

The 1987 general election was imminent and it seemed for a time that if the newspaper, funded by Labour local authorities, went bankrupt in the middle of the campaign it would be a gift to the Tories – as a great example of “loonie lefties” in action. Oyston went to see Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party. I don’t know what happened in the meeting but Oyston believed he was promised a knighthood if he could keep the paper going until after the election. With the TGWU he put in more money and the bankruptcy was delayed until the week after the election. The paper staggered on for four more months, owned and funded by Oyston and the TGWU.

I was by then Finance Manager and I remember bizarre trips to his mansion (where bison wandered the gardens) to have payments approved. Oyston was a strange character, for whom the newspaper – fresh off the press on a Saturday night – would be delivered by models from a local agency. He is better known now for the prison sentence he was to serve for rape.

I also came across a list of payments to local politicians, including £3,000 to somebody who is now a prominent North-West MP. It may have been perfectly legitimate but, when he discovered I had a copy, he went to great lengths to get it back. It was a sad end to have him in charge of our great idealistic project. I eventually left the newspaper, before it went bankrupt a second time, after refusing to sign the cheque to the model agency for ‘consultancy’. The head of the agency was later to go to jail with Oyston. It was a very seedy business.

The Golden share had proved to be no protection. Faced with the financial crisis and an ultimatum from Oyston (“give up the golden share or the paper closes”), the Founders had no alternative but to give in and hand over control.

After I left News on Sunday I set up a training business, now called Happy Ltd. When I am asked what motivated me to start Happy, I always refer back to News on Sunday. The greatest irony for me was that, for all our ideals, it was a far worse place to work than IBM – the great capitalist monolith where I worked in my year off. I left determined to find out how to create a company that was both principled and effective – and a great place to work in. I learnt most of what I know about how not to manage at News on Sunday.

We had great dreams. We would show it was possible to engage with the capitalist system and create an alternative within it. We succeeded in raising millions and, if we had succeeded, we could have set an example for others to follow. Instead we made it virtually impossible for a similar project to get funding again (though the actual amounts the pension funds lost was dwarfed by the losses caused by the crash of October 1987.)

And we didn’t even manage to create a publication that was especially radical or challenging. And, to me, that was down to our lack of ability in how to manage and organise to get the most from our people.

It could have been a truly great legacy of Big Flame. In fact those of us involved from BF did not play any separate role and certainly didn’t have a caucus of any type. We did have strong views on what should go in the Charter, meant to be the guiding document for the publication, but had no common view on the key question of how to build an organisation that could create a great paper – or the experience to make this happen.

Henry Stewart, September 2010

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1950s-80s BRITISH LEFT GROUPS AND MOVEMENTS ON THE INTERNET

Posted by archivearchie on September 6, 2010

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Back in May 2009 I posted about the US political group Sojourner Truth Organization. In it I drew attention to two websites (one a digital archive, one reporting on a research project – unfortunately silent for the last year). I then asked for sites on the internet which attempted a similar task for organisations with related politics to Big Flame. Amongst the responses were links to sites on the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, the Red Menace (a Toronto-based Libertarian Socialist Collective 1976-80), (in German) Maoist-influenced groups and (in French) the LCI (section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International).

I would now like to broaden out the discussion by removing the “related politics to Big Flame” tag (it should certainly makes things easier by not having to worry about what “related” means), and cover any site which contains an archive of documents of the left from the middle to later 20th century. Again I hope that others will add to my list (which are all British but international suggestions would also be welcome).

Left Groups

I was inspired in this task by coming across three recent websites.

The first which started in August 2010 is For Workers Power. It mostly consists of republications of documents from Solidarity (1960-80s). The person behind the site is involved with the Commune. Solidarity was heavily influence by a French group – Socialisme ou Barbarie.  A site launched last year is gradually digitalising the journal: Projet de scannerisation: Socialisme ou Barbarie. Starting with the first issue (No1 March-April 1949) and now up to no7 August-September 1950 (as at September 2010).

The second site was also launched in August 2010. It is Red Mole Rising. The site is intended “to contribute modestly” to a history of the IMG – International Marxist Group (1960s-80s), and is produced by a supporter of Socialist Resistance (one of the three currents to emerge when the IMG disintegrated).

The last has been around slightly longer – June 2010 – and is called IS Origins. It arose out of a temporary project (centering around an intensive 6 week course of research) aiming to provide resources for discussion and historiography into the background of what is now the International Socialist Tendency. Represented today in Britain by the SWP – Socialist Workers Party. The site focuses on the 1950s when the Socialist Review Group (SRG) split from the Fourth International. Although the 6 week period is over, the author says “I hope to update this blog regularly with updates on my work, scan and digitize as much of the literature as I can, and hopefully form the focal point for new discussion arising around this topic area”.

We should not forget Libcom which has been around for seven years now and includes on its site a vast array of documents from all currents of the libertarian communist movement.

Black movement

Other sites have made available documents from Black movements of the 70s and 80s.

Tandana is a digitised archive to record the political ephemera produced by the Asian Youth Movements in British town and cities.

CLR James had a major influence on many of the Race Today Collective. Links to writings by or about James can be found at the CLR James Links page. Many of the links are to documents in the CLR James Archive at the Marxists Internet Archive.

Women movement

Good starting points for research into British Feminism in the 70s and 80s are the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University and the Feminist Archive North now at the University of Leeds.

The internet is increasingly becoming the source of images as well as written documents. A BBC page contains some useful clips on Second Wave Feminism. The Vanessa Engle documentary series on Women shown on BBC television is currently unavailable via i-Player, but are the sort of programmes which may well be shown again sometime in the future (there are just two, not especially interesting, excerpts on U Tube). The first episode of the trilogy contained a lot of good interviews with activists from the 70s, plus contemporary footage.

Gay movement

A full set of issues (1975-80) of the jounal Gay Left are available on the internet.

Archive Archie

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ANTI-NUCLEAR ACTION (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 6)

Posted by archivearchie on August 23, 2010

This post is the sixth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History  series . Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

At its December 1980 Conference Big Flame agreed that its priorities should include “the struggle against nuclear power and nuclear weapons”. Another motion passed at the Conference argued that support for the anti-nuclear movement should be from a socialist and anti-imperialist perspective. This meant opposing the militarism of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and focusing on a need for a mass movement willing to take direct action rather than legalistic manoeuvres and public enquiries. Because of BF’s small forces it could not intervene effectively alone, and must debate and discuss with other forces.

Following the Conference BF members were active in CND, END, Women Opposed to the Nuclear Threat and a variety of other groups. A document in the April 1981 Discussion Bulletin addressed the practical issues of what to do next. It considered such as issues as  a focus on power or weapons, the local or national, and how to respond to those who raise the “Russian threat”: The Anti-Nuclear Movement – How Best to Intervene.

The Big Flame newspaper of November 1981 included a four page supplement “Hell, no. We Wont Glow: Socialist/Feminist Perspectives for CND”. Following discussion at a fringe meeting at the 1982 CND Conference, Big Flame members engaged in anti-nuclear activity started producing a bulletin called Anti-Nuclear Action. There were five issues between Spring 1983 and Summer 1984.

Whilst it did say inside that the publication was the product of Big Flame members, there was nothing to indicate this on the cover. It did include contributions from non-BF members. The focus was overwhelmingly on peace issues (particular, Cruise missiles, Trident and Greenham Common) with much rarer articles on nuclear technology (e.g. Uranium mining in Namibia). A sample issues illustrates the style and contents of the publication. This is issue no 4 – undated but from early in 1984. Click here to read: Anti-Nuclear Action no4.

Anti-Nuclear Action is of particular interest as it was the only publication of Big Flame in its last years, after the newspaper was suspended in mid 1983.

Archive Archie

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WOMEN’S STRUGGLE NOTES (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 5)

Posted by archivearchie on July 29, 2010

This post is the fifth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

Elsewhere on this site I mentioned Women’s Struggle Notes (see the post on Women and Feminism Part 1). I would now like to consider it in more detail.

This publication first appeared in a duplicated format for around eight issues in 1975-76 and was described as being produced by the “Big Flame Women’s Group”. It was then replaced by a printed version for around another five issues in 1977. During the course of the second series the Editorial Board was expanded to include women who were not members of Big Flame. Responsibility for issues rotated between women from different parts of the country.

As the title implied the focus was on descriptive accounts of struggles. Most of the articles were fairly short. There was a particular emphasis on personal accounts.

This internal document written in 1976 during the lead up to the relaunch provides an insight into discussions about the publication: A New Struggle Notes and the Need for a Changed Perspective for Women. The author reviews the reasons for starting Women’s Struggle Notes (including wanting to build a working class perspective for women, particularly inside the women’s movement) and the criticisms which had been made about it (including not knowing who it was aimed at). She argued for a new direction, which seems to be the one agreed by Big Flame women, of aiming the publication primarily at working class women rather than the women’s movement, and expanding the editorial group to make the publication more than the voice of Big Flame.

A sample issue from the second series demonstrates the style and contents of Women’s Struggle Notes. There is no date on the cover, but it seems to have been published in the first half of 1977.It contains a typical mix of contents. Articles on struggles in a factory in Luton, a hospital in Liverpool, a Wives Support Group from Leicester, and an unfair dismissal case at a Leeds Grocers. Also articles on the experiences of black women, one parent families, and working in a nursery. Finally, articles on the Spanish Women’s Movement, Women’s Health and Housework, and some poetry.

Click here to read: Women’s Struggle Notes (second series) no2.

Archive Archie

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POSITION ON INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 4)

Posted by archivearchie on June 24, 2010

This post is the fourth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s  Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

Elsewhere on this site I mentioned that at the 1981 BF conference its approach to international solidarity was extended to Ireland (see the post on Ireland). This post discusses that position, which was adopted at the previous year’s conference.

This is the motion passed in December 1980: International Solidarity Work. The main points are:

  • Support for all national liberation struggles which are anti-imperialist. This support not being conditional on them being struggles for socialism.
  • The right to criticise movements for not advancing the position of workers, women etc. Criticisms to be made within the context of solidarity and an understanding of the history and conditions of the movement.
  • Criticisms after a movement comes to power being made on the basis of a realistic assessment of the possibilities open to it.
  • In certain circumstances (not specified in the motion) not making criticisms or other facts public.

A document printed in pre-Conference bulletins help clarify the discussions within Big Flame:  Towards a New Approach to International Solidarity Work (1980 Conference Bulletin). This document:

  • Argues that the traditional left approach to solidarity glorifies movements before they come to power and totally denounces them afterwards.
  • Counterposes a moral or human rights approach to solidarity(appealing to people’s good nature) with a materialist one (which seeks to identify the interdependency of struggles i.e. how international struggles fit in with workers in Britain’s own struggles against capital).
  • Seeks a position between total subservience to the positions of the leaders of liberation movement to arrogantly lecturing them on the “correct line” with little knowledge of the struggle.

In many ways it is easier to establish general principle than to know how to apply them in specific situations. In a later post in this series I will return to these issues in the context of a discussion of a specific struggle.

Archive Archie

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1960s AND 70s STUDENT PROTEST: SOME WEBSITES

Posted by archivearchie on June 9, 2010

In an earlier post I drew attention to a couple of websites which, like this one, documented the activities of a political organisation – the Sojourner Truth Organization in the USA. This led to an interesting series of comments where sites for other groups were mentioned. In this post I want to draw attention to some sites which reflect on another aspect of the politics of the period – student protest.

I have found two websites (and would be very interested to hear about more). They are:

An Emotional Involvement which covers the March 1970 occupation of Senate House at Liverpool University.

Essex 68 which covers the events at Essex University in 1968, particularly the occupation in May.

Both websites are an interesting mixture of documents and photos from the period and modern reflections back on the events. Both held reunions to bring together some of those involved.

I would also like to mention what I think is the best book about student protest of the 1960s and 1970s: Ronald Fraser 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988). It is based on hundreds of interviews with activists – not just in the UK but also from Europe and the USA. Tapes and transcripts of the interviews were donated to the British Library in London, and most are available for public access (although one person who went on to became a Government Minister did withdraw his interview!).

Incidentally, both the websites include reflections (and the book an interview) with people who were later members of Big Flame.

Archive Archie

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FORD HALEWOOD LEAFLETS AND BULLETIN (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 3)

Posted by archivearchie on May 31, 2010

This post is the third in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

A wide variety of different sorts of documents have been published on this site. However up to now, there has been little in the way of Big Flame’s more agitational publications. This most aims to provide a few examples of leaflets and a Bulletin.

Over the years Merseyside Big Flame attempted to intervene at a considerable number of different industrial workplaces. However, the one which was the most long lasting and involved the most effort on the part of members was the Ford Halewood Assembly Plant. The documents in this post were handed out or sold outside the gates to Ford workers.

First, three examples of leaflets.

Halewood carries on the Fight  April 1971.

The nine week “parity strike” at Fords took place in January-March 1971. The objective was to bring the wages of Fords workers operating under a Measured Day Work system in line with Midlands car workers on piece rates. The eventual settlement was Initially oppose by workers at Halewood, whilst other plants accepted the offer. This leaflet was produced on the 7th April, the day mass meetings at Halewood decided to go back to work. It argues that the problem is not individual trade unions leader like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon who had called for an end to the strike. Rather the differences between rank and file power and trade union officials.

The Fifth Column at Fords November 1971.

The starting point of this leaflet was a dispute in the PTA (Paint, Trim and Assembly), one the two main parts of the Halewood site. It looks at the role of foremen in pushing through speed ups, and argues for collective mass action as the only way to oppose them.

An Open Letter by a Group of Ford Halewood Workers to their Sisters and Brothers September 1972.

The “parity strike” settlement was a two year deal which expired in March 1973. This leaflet reminds workers of developments in the plant since 1971, and sets out a list of demands for the new contract.

As well as the leaflets there was a Bulletin. Consisting of around 12 to 20 duplicate pages, it sold for 2p. There were 14 issues between 1974 and 1976.

Halewood Bulletin no 2 1974.

This is one of the earlier issues. It reflects the typical mix of articles about what is happening in Fords with events in the wider world (in this case the new Labour Government’s “Social Contract”).

For some context on how the perspective in the leaflet and bulletins fitted into Big Flame’s developing positions, see the post on Industry and Workplace.

Archive Archie

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LABOURING UNDER THE TORIES? (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on April 21, 2010

This post is the second in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

The second document I want to discuss is: Labouring Under the Tories? This short pamphlet was written in the summer of 1979. I’m not sure of the exact date, but it is first mentioned in the September issue of the Big Flame newspaper. Thus it was produced only a few months after the Tories General Election victory in May of that year.

Given the publication date, it is surprising that the analysis of Thatcherism is not especially prescient (what became known as Thatcherism only emerged over a period of time). This is not to argue that the Tory polices described weren’t important features of Thatcherism – structural long-term unemployment, removal of trade union rights, cuts in public expenditure, the strong state, etc. Like rest of left Big Flame not appreciate immediately how fundamental a change had occurred. The pamphlet did acknowledge that election victory signified that the Tories had won working class support for their “vision of an individualistic, competitive society”. However, the new government is mainly seen as “consolidating” the previous Labour government’s adoption of similar polices at the behest of the IMF.

The pamphlet is less about the Tories, than the Labour Party and need to develop a socialist alternative. The problem is how to break out of the cycle of militancy, followed by reformist politics and back again. The key message is to avoid the mistake made under the previous Tory spell in government 1970-74, and for those struggling against the government to limit themselves to calls for the return of a Labour government, and to rely on Labour and the trade union left to lead the struggles. In this respect the position laid out in the pamphlet is very similar to the 1971 broadsheet featured in the previous post in this series: How To Fight Them (link to https://bigflameuk.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/how-to-fight-them/). The key task is to develop wider perspectives which link defensive struggles to a challenge to capitalist ideas and control.

I can’t recall much disagreement in Big Flame about the pamphlet. However, there were clearly some members who weren’t happy with the contents. One referred to it a few years later (1983) as “that terrible pamphlet” and dismissed “the battle of ideas, ideologies, alternative plans and similar wishful thinking” by counter posing them to “solid working class organising”. This suspicion of the pamphlet may in part be due to the fact that by then some main of the authors had departed BF for the Labour Party. Myself I can’t see that pamphlet says much which leads on to that decision. Entryism in the Labour Party is rejected as based on a “fundamental misconception about the relationship of the Labour Party and reformism, and to the working class”. It also argues that “slogans and demands” will not prove to people that socialism is the answer, and that alternative plans are not ”the solution” and can’t be “a substitute” for more familiar forms of struggle.

If I have a criticism of the pamphlet it is that it is very limited in developing the wider perspectives it said were needed. I don’t disagree with any of the things it supports: alternative plans, rank and file organisation, solutions based on the needs of all oppressed classes and groups, material internationalism, a strategy based on the active participation of the working class, and making the struggle for socialism “meaningful, worthwhile and enjoyable”. The problem is that it fails to go beyond this level of generality. However, to expect much more is probably unrealistic from something brought out very quickly to promote a position as soon as possible after the election. Further, everyone else on the left, at the time and since, equally failed to develop much in the way of perspectives which would make socialism meaningful and popular.

If the coming election works out as predicted in the opinion polls, socialists will face a situation in some ways similar to that of 1970 and 1979. However, there is little need to warn anyone about the need to avoid having illusions in the Labour Party.

Click here to read: Labouring Under the Tories?.

Archive Archie

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HOW TO FIGHT THEM (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on March 24, 2010

This post is the first in what will be an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page, this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

The first document is “How To Fight Them” from early 1971. It took the form of a two sided broadsheet, slightly larger than A2.

It was published between the demise of first Merseyside newspaper called Big Flame (produced by a coalition of those on the left) in October 1970 and the relaunch of the new Big Flame (produced by a new group of the same name) in June 1972. See the post on The Beginning in the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series.

The first side of the broadsheet “How To Fight Them” focuses on how to fight bosses in the workplace. The second “How Not To Fight Them” looks at the Government’s Industrial Relations Bill and the response of the trade unions and the Labour party.

There is no date given in the broadsheet, but it contains lots of clues. The Industrial Relations Bill, was first presented to Parliament on the 1st December 1970, with the Act becoming operative on the 5th August 1971. There is a mention of it being “5 months” since the Bill came out, suggesting the broadsheet was produced in April 1971. This date fits well with the mentions of the power and postal worker strikes as recent defeats (they happened between Dec 1970 and Feb 1971).

What makes “How to Fight Them” particularly interesting is that it is the clearest statement of Big Flame’s general perspectives before the publication in 1977 of the Draft Manifesto for a proposed new organisation Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. See the post on The Project and Socialist Unity.

The broadsheet contains many of the themes which would come to characterise BF:

–                An emphasis on workers’ self organisation.

–                The advocacy of forms of industrial action which raise issues of control.

–                An understanding of trade union leaders which seems the problem as one of the system rather than with individuals.

–                A suspicion of left groups which proclaim themselves the leadership of the working class.

There are other aspects of the politics of the broadsheet where BF changed over the years:

–                The focus is almost entirely on workplace struggles with only a couple of passing references to struggles in the community, and no mention of women.

–                The perspective for what is happening in the workplace seems the world almost exclusively in terms of mass assembly production lines.

–                Whilst the need to involve rank and file militants is stressed there are no criticisms of shop stewards. Soon after the broadsheet was published Big Flame  adopted a critical line on shop stewards, strongly influenced by events at Ford Halewood. Later on, this position was also modified. See the post on Industry and Workplace.

–                The desirability of a “revolutionary movement” is mentioned, although there is little clue of what this might entail apart from possibly a coming together of “Councils of Action”. The form of organisation required by the working class to achieve a transition to socialism was the subject of further debate in BF over they years. See the post on Party and Class.

Because of the size of the broadsheet it was not possible to do a normal scan of it. So I’ve cut and pasted the text into an A4 document, keeping the original graphics. Click here to read: How To Fight Them.

Archive Archie

Update (31/8/2010): A new version of the attached document How to Fight Them has been uploaded which corrects the small gaps of missing text in the previous version.

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 5: KEVIN McDONNELL

Posted by archivearchie on January 18, 2010

This post is a behalf of Kevin McDonnell. It is the fifth in the series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, providing a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.

Kevin McDonnell was a member of Big Flame from the beginning of 1978 to the end of 1981 in Hackney and then Camden. He worked on the newspaper for a couple of years and was active in the Anti-Racism Anti-Fascism Commission. He spent many decades working in the voluntary sector and, then, local government. He is currently early retired/unemployed.

Kevin McDonnell writes:

This article can be seen as a contribution to the debate about Big Flame’s legacy for today which John Waller has called for (see Opinion no 3 and Opinion no 3 part two). Although in fact the first draft was written before John’s articles appeared.

Apologies for the length of this article. It started out being of a much more reasonable length, but as I have continued to revise it seems to have grown and grown.

Because I think it very important that the discussion is open and honest, as well as highlighting what was of value about Big Flame, I also write about its problems and failures.

Like Mike Jones I would like to dedicate this article to some people who made a major contribution to Big Flame and aren’t around to read and disagree with it. Particular strong in my memory are: Nina Hutchison, George Molnar, Kate Truscott, and Roy Webb.

 

BIG FLAME’S LEGACY: WHAT IS OF VALUE AND WHAT ISN’T

Kevin McDonnell

 Introduction

Big Flame (BF) was unsuccessful in achieving a socialist revolution in Britain, and with the rather more limited ambition of growing beyond a group of 100 to 200 members. You don’t hear its name mentioned much in discussions about the British left of the twentieth century [Note 1]. Many of the interventions BF members would have claimed as successes around a particular workplace, neighbourhood, or campaign may now seem fairly minor in light of the tide of things which will have occurred in the same places since those days.

However, I still believe that this tiny organisation developed ideas and forms of activity which are of value to socialists in 2010, and this is what this article is about. Before I set out the aspects of Big Flame which are valuable (and those which are less valuable), I want to lay some groundwork by reviewing some key issues about BF’s history, theory and practice which are relevant to the task. I need to make clear upfront that I wasn’t there at the beginning or at the end of BF. Further, my experience was restricted to a single one of its local groups.

The main issues I want to address are:

  • Can BF’s history be divided into distinct phases and can any of these be described as its peak and its decline?
  • Who were the people who made up the membership of BF?
  • To what extent can BF’s development be seen as the struggle between two distinct competing currents?
  • How significant a part of BF history was the debate about joining the Labour Party?
  • Did BF have a coherent theory?
  • Did BF have a distinctive practice?
  • Which things about BF are of value to socialists today?
  • Which things about BF are not of value?
  • If BF was valuable, why did it only last 13 years?
  • If BF was valuable, why have there been no similar organisations since? 

What follows is very much my first stab at addressing these issues, and could definitely be improved with further research and discussion. This article assumes a certain level of familiarity with the history of BF, or that readers have taken a look through the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series on this website (hereafter referred to as Episodes). Descriptions of events in the series have not been repeated in any detail. Posts in “Opinions about Big Flame” series (hereafter Opinions) and several of the comments left on the website by former BF members and others have also proved very helpful to me in writing this post. As have the discussions I have had with former members (I would particularly like to thank Max Farrar). 

Can BF’s history be divided into distinct phases and can any of these be described as its peak and its decline?

Big Flame began in 1971 (born out of a community newspaper on Merseyside which had been published in the previous year) and lasted for 13 years. At a conference in May 1984 it fragmented into a number of small groupings some of which carried on for a few years more (and one which carried on with the name). The organisation changed significantly over these 13 years. Is any particular part of its history the place to look for the things of value? I’ll start by considering whether an understanding of this history is enhanced by dividing the years between 1971 and 1984 into distinct periods. For me the key phases of BF’s life were:

  • 1971-74: BF was born on Merseyside and became the dominant force of the revolutionary left in the Liverpool.
  • 1974-77: BF expanded to a national organisation, initially when Merseyside BF group was joined by some other groups who were part of a network formed by the Libertarian Newsletter. BF went on to launch the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation, an attempt to link up with others who were seen as part of the same “working class autonomy tendency”.
  • 1977-81: Although the Project failed to deliver the new organisation BF desired, it continued to grow. Some members looked for greater unity through Socialist Unity and Beyond the Fragments. A minority of members argued unsuccessfully that the organisation might grow better if some members joined the Labour Party, and some of these then leave BF.
  • 1981-84: BF carries on to its eventual fragmentation.

See the entire series of posts Episodes nos 1 to 30 for a fuller account of key events and issues over these years.

When was Big Flame at its peak? Some might argue 1977-81 when it had the largest number of local groups spread around England, and the highest total membership figure (see next section). Others might suggest 1974-77 when some of the interventions for which it is best known (Ford Halewood, Tower Hill Rent Strike) were at their height, and BF became better known amongst the left nationally. Finally some might even favour 1971-74 as that this was when BF developed a distinct theory and practice and had an impact in Liverpool which was never to be repeated in any other city or town.

When did Big Flame go into decline? From fairly early on the feelings of many members were that the organisation was in crisis. Believing that the working class will spontaneously struggle against capitalism made it more vulnerable than other political traditions to self doubts in a period of downturn in the class struggle. Probably most members, whatever current they supported in the internal debates, would see 1981-84 as period of decline with falling numbers, a reduced national political presence on the left and much talk of a crisis in the organisation [Note 2]. Many would also say the same of 1977-81 despite the highest membership numbers. The base group model had been abandoned. There were fewer joint interventions by local groups, with members mostly acting on their own as militants in their own sectors. Important Commissions no longer functioned effectively, such as the Industrial (from around 1977) and Women’s (from around 1976). Although I need to add immediately that both these Commissions were revived later.

My view is as follows: During 1971-74 BF seems to have been at its most coherent, committed, optimistic (no doubt excessively) and effective. This peak probably carried on through 1974-77 despite increasing internal differences. The decline started from around 1978 onwards after the Project failed, and talk grew of problems and crisis. Some commentators have viewed BF in terms of two competing currents (see a later section of this article), and the gloom affected both sides of this perceived divide.

One current wanted to revise some of BF’s traditional politics, and called meetings in October 1978 to discuss a document by one of its main writers. According to an account of one meeting “most contributors seemed to agree that BF faced major problems”. The same writer talked later of further meetings to discuss “the crisis” in BF. From the very different perspective of other members who tended to defend the organisation traditional politics, things seemed even worse. They wrote of “BF’s problems”, “the crisis of BF as an organisation” and of BF “the cracks were papered over … but the real crisis remained” [Note 3].

I am sure that the extent of the decline was frequently exaggerated by members at the time (including myself). Things don’t seem nearly as bad from this distance. Whilst some things were going badly, others were going well – some of the local groups, some sectors of struggle, etc. For example, for a long time difficulties in northern cities like Liverpool and Manchester, were more than balanced by substantial growth in London. It was during the 1977-81 period that a lot of the best BF pamphlets were published e.g. The Revolution Unfinished?: A Critique of Trotskyism (1977), Organising to Win (1979) [about workplace struggles], The Past Against Our Future: Fighting Racism and Fascism (1980) and Walking a Tightrope: Big Flame Women’s Pamphlet (1980) (see Episodes nos 3, 4, 14 and 24). A counter argument would be that many these publications wrote up the experience gained in interventions in an earlier period.

The decline was a gradual process, only becoming much more pronounced around 1982-83, with the disappearance of the both the paper and journal, and with no new pamphlets added to those already published. This decline, as I will argue later, was not just a result of the organisation’s weaknesses but a general demoralisation of the left in the face of the rise of the Thatcherite right, and neo-liberalism globally.

Even if certain phases in Big Flame’s history can be fairly described as peaks or periods of decline, focussing attention on the former is not necessarily the best way of identifying what is most useful today. BF’s successes were related to the context in which it operated and the early 1970s were definitely a time with a higher level of class struggle than the years that followed. Also it is reasonable to expect any political organisation to learn lessons as it develops and to find some errors in its past. Thus when I do start identifying things of value in BF’s theory and practice, I will draw both on things which persisted throughout its life and others more associated with particular periods.

Who were the people who made up the membership of BF?

A proper understanding of Big Flame needs to include a discussion of who was part in it. Details of the Big Flame membership, apart from an overall national total, were only collected erratically. The following picture is compiled form the sources I have been able to locate [Note 4].

Total Numbers

Big Flame membership was always tiny. According to various reports to its Conference the figures were

  • May 1978: 160 members.
  • Nov 1980: 125 members.
  • Dec 1981: 125 members – of which 86 were employed and 39 unemployed.
  • June 1982: 90 members and 30 sympathisers.
  • April 1983: 71 members and 28 sympathisers.
  • May 1984: Before the conference – 25 members and formal sympathisers and another 20 who might be considered as such. After conference in the main fragment which decided to carry on using the name – 17 members (see Episode no 30).
  • Jan 1985: 15 members.

BF always found itself surrounded by a much larger body of people sympathetic to its ideas. More than were ever formally characterised as such (a point to which I will return).

Location

The geographical locations of Big Flame members changed over time [Note 5]. It originated on Merseyside, and the early BF was extremely unusual among left groups in having the bulk of its membership in the north of England, with smaller numbers in the midlands and London. My estimate would be that around 1976 two thirds of the BF membership would be in one of the four local groups in the north (Liverpool, Manchester Sheffield and Leeds). In 1978 the proportion of members living in the north was still 48% of all members. By 1981 the proportion of regular attenders at branches in the north was down to 34% of all attenders. The major reason was the decline of the Liverpool group. In 1976 Merseyside BF had 38-39 members (45% of them women), and 1978 there were 40 members. Moving on to 1979 Liverpool BF had approximately 30 members, and by 1981 only 10 regular branch attendees (all men), with another 10 attending irregularly.

By way of contrast the proportion living in the south grew to 42% of members (1978) to 51% of regular attenders (1981), with 41% of the latter in London. The main factor was clearly the expansion by the London branches. In 1976 there were 11 members in West London and 2 South London members. By 1978 there was a new North London branch, and the overall London membership figures were: West 10, South 20 and North 17. In 1981 the numbers of regular attenders for the same three groups were 6, 15 and 29 respectively.

Women

The only breakdowns of membership by gender breakdown I have found contain these figures [Note 6]:

  • 1974: A document claimed “almost half of Big Flame” were women.
  • 1981: 30% of the regular attenders at branches were women.
  • 1982: 25% of the membership were women.
  • 1984: 20% of the membership were women.
  • 1985: Only 2 of the remaining 15 members were women, i.e. 13%.

The proportion of women in BF was probably 30% or more for most of its life until the decline in the last few years. The figure might not be what the organisation would have wanted, but was probably far higher than many left groups – then and now.

The loss of membership in the late 1970s from the north of England was more pronounced amongst women. In 1981 34% of all regular attenders lived in the north, but only 25% of all the female regular attenders.

Class

There are no statistics which break down the membership by other dimensions. In terms of class, the composition of Big Flame was in the main ex-students, and thus nearly all middle class. Probably the only real exception was Merseyside in the earlier days where some members, and even more contacts were working class, particular those linked to the North End branch and the Ford Halewood and Tower Hill base groups (see 1976 Liverpool group report to the Big Flame conference). One BF writer claimed that those who did join BF were “mainly inexperienced working class people at industrial and community level” [Note 7]. I don’t have sufficient information to confirm or challenge this statement. Some BF members with a student background (some of them after having worked in professional middle class occupations) took manual jobs e.g. in a car plant or as a hospital domestic. However, as far as I am aware, these were relatively few in number and the decision was a matter of their personal choice. This distinguished it from some Trotskyist and Maoist groups where there was a collective decision that members undertake a “turn to industry”.

Political background

In terms of political background Mike Jones in his website post (Opinions no 4) states that few members of the original Big Flame in Liverpool had been in other left groups, with former political allegiances including the Labour Party Young Socialists, the CPB (ML) [Communist Party of Britain (Marxist Leninist)] and the SLL [Socialist Labour League]. BF was unique on the British left in being influenced by sections of the revolutionary left in Italy. These links were strengthened by an Italian member of Lotta Continua moving to England and joining BF whilst doing a B.Sc in Mathematics at Liverpool University.

Libertarian groups emerged in many cities in the early 1970s, specifically in response to the emergence of the women’s and gay movements, claimants unions, anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles, international solidarity movements, and to the impatience supporters of all those movements had with the traditional anarchist formations that were present in all these towns. Libertarian groupings were often as large in membership as the Trotskyist groups. Their politics arose directly out of the events of 1968, compared to the much earlier periods in which the politics of the Communist Party and Trotskyist groups were formed. (see Max Farrar’s Opinions no 1 and the post 1960 and 1970s British Left Libertarianism).

The groups which joined up with Merseyside BF at a 1975 Conference to create the national organisation had mostly been part of the Libertarian Newsletter network. Other groups or individuals who joined later (e.g. in Leeds, Nottingham and Islington) contained members who had also been part of this network. The people libertarians who joined BF wanted to be part of something which espoused organisation, but rejected democratic centralism (as traditionally understood). Most had a history of working together in a range of campaigns, on alternative local newspapers, in unions, women’s groups, tenants’ associations, solidarity movements and the like. Almost always, these were people who had quite a lot of political experience, who had read BF publications, particularly the newspaper, which sold well on demonstrations, at meetings etc.

Some of those who joined BF in the course of the 1970s did have a background in left organisations. Probably the largest number joining as individuals came from the International Marxist Group (IMG), but there were others who had been in IS (International Socialists) or were former Marxist-Leninists (Maoists). As well as those who joined BF as individuals, two small groupings fused with BF. Both consisted of around a dozen people (some of whom seem to have drifted away from BF quite soon). The groupings were the RMC (Revolutionary Marxist Current) (joined 1977), and the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG) (joined 1980). Largely unsuccessful attempts were made to recruit members of a third grouping in 1979 – the International Socialist Alliance (ISA), although very few people seem to have taken up the offer. Interestingly, these groups had their origins in three very different political traditions – Trotskyism (the RMC originally split away from the IMG), Class Struggle Anarchism and the (IS (see the website posts on the three organisations).

The politics of both the RMC and LCG had moved significantly from their starting point, The RMC members were ceasing to describe themselves as Trotskyists around the time they joined, and the LCG thought of itself as Libertarian Communist rather than Anarchists. The ex-IS members had left it when the group adopted a more tradition form of left organisation and declared itself “the party”- the SWP (Socialist Workers Party).

To what extent can BF’s development be seen as the struggle between two distinct competing currents?

There were always significant differences of opinion on many issues amongst Big Flame members. This raises the question of whether the valuable ideas or activity I want to identify were the property of BF as a whole or of one strand within it.

Both at the time and since the days of BF, various writers have represented the organisation in terms of a struggle between two competing currents (see for example Opinion no 4 and Episodes no 5, 11, 22, 27 and 30). There is a problem giving names to these current. In other groups like the IMG, tendencies or factions chose their own letter, number, or name. Only in BF’s later years were formal tendencies declared and explicit names adopted, and then not by all the groupings. There is a danger if we come up with our own labels, that they would be contested by those involved. Certainly the terms “Leninists” and “Libertarians” applied by some during the 1975 debate weren’t acceptable to either side. The labels Plan X and Plan Y used briefly in 1976 to distinguish the two positions at the Conference did avoid the difficulties of the descriptions being value laden. The problem is that most people have difficult remembering which was Plan X and which was Plan Y without going back and checking.

The “Episodes in Big Flame History” series made a distinction between “those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision” (Episode no 11). Unfortunately, the problem occurs when this is reduced to one word tags in the rest of the series: Defenders and Revisers. They just sound awkward. Mike Jones in his website post used the terms “Autonomists” and “Centralists” (Opinions no 4). The former label would probably be accepted by those it is meant to describe. When in 1981 a formal tendency was created under the name “Facing the Challenge”, its members saw “working class autonomy” as key to their approach. However I would dispute whether it is accurate to sum up the other current with the label “Centralists”. Only in the 1975-78 period was “centralisation” the key issue they focussed on. In addition several of the “Autonomists” believed just as much in a form of centralisation (probably more than much of the membership), issuing a stream of criticisms of the organisation: for abandoning mass work, not prioritising Irish solidarity or anti-racist anti-fascist work and so on [note 8]. For the purpose of this article the labels I will use will be the “Autonomist” and the “New Direction” currents. The latter current advocated a series of new directions for BF. First it was centralisation, then Socialist Unity, next “transitional politics”, and finally (in the case of some of them) the Labour Party. Sometimes the phrase “New Direction” was actually used in the title of a document [Note 9].

There are four main problems with any dichotomy. First, at various times there were more than two groupings in BF, and some of them can not easily be labelled as part of one or the other of the two main currents. In 1980 there was also the “North London Group”. In 1981 there was “Emerald Street” and the “North London four”, a minority of the local group (see Opinions no 4, see Episodes nos 22 and 27 for more information on the groupings). They all advanced different positions at Conferences from the two currents previously discussed, and are not easily placed along any single axis. It is not accurate to portray, as Mike Jones does, “Emerald Street” as a watered down version of the “Autonomist” current, and the “North London four” as having this same position in relation to what I call the “New Direction” current

Second, while it is tempting to apply the dichotomy to the 1974-75 debate in BF, I think that a different dynamic underlay the different perspectives from the earlier period. ELBF in 1974-75 and Plan X in 1976 (the then incarnation of the “Autonomist” current) both feared a process of centralisation. However what worried them was something different. Plan X agreed with Plan Y (the 1976 version of the “New Direction” current) that there was an immediate need to start “building an organisation which can be one of the embryos of the revolutionary party” [Note 10]. The ELBF of 1974-75 did not accept this position (see Episode no 5).

Third, were the two currents continuing entities, or did they change sufficiently over time (despite continuities in personnel) to challenge the usefulness of a dichotomy? Although the “Autonomist” current was fairly consistent in its political perspectives, the “New Direction” current as mentioned above went through a series of very sharp turns in its strategic impetus. If there is one consistent factor about the “New Directions” current which runs through its different phases, it is perhaps a greater stress on the role of leadership.

Finally, the talk of a dichotomy disguises what BF members had in common. Max Farrar has suggested that “the ideological difference between ELBF [East London BF] and MBF [Merseyside BF] was not huge, and that the split was probably as much to do with personalities (hard/soft; noisy/quiet; macho/femmo; tolerant/intolerant etc, to hazard at guesses in improperly binary terms) as to do with ideologies” (comment on Episode no 5). There is a tendency within left groups for some people to see as their biggest enemies those of different views within their own organisation, and present the gap as much bigger than it actually is. It would be misleading to adopt a view of BF which reinforces this sort of perspective.

Apart from two brief periods 1980-81 (“Tendency One”) and 1981-82 (both “Emerald Street” and “Facing the Challenge”) political currents only came together for Conferences, and did not aim for a life afterwards. The Conference general strategy motions made little difference to political activity in most areas of work e.g. Irish solidarity or anti-racist anti-fascist work. Conferences are usually focused on such motions, and these tend to polarise discussion. They are the way the most members of organisations, usually the most active intellectuals, develop specific proposals: ‘”for Centralisation”, “for a New Revolutionary Organisation”, and so on. Since most history is based on documents like these, histories of organisations are usually written from this perspective.

A large number of Big Flame members had no fixed allegiance to a particular current, and shifted in how they voted depending on the issues as they were presented at each Conference. Take myself as an example. Most of my time in Big Flame I took positions at Conferences contrary to those of the “New Direction” current, although the alternative I supported changed. The one exception came in 1981 after this current split into “Emerald Street” and what I will call the “Group of Nine” (they didn’t adopt a clear label, so I have taken this term from a letter from a key member of the group in which he uses it to describe the supporters of his motion – nine people in all). The “Group of Nine” formed a tactical alliance for the Conference that year with the “North London four” over the issue of the Labour Party, and the latter was the position I supported.

Looking back now with 30 years of hindsight, I don’t think any current was all right or all wrong. I don’t think it is necessary today to make a clear choice to favour of one or the other. Later in this article, when I start to identify the aspects of BF which are of value today, many of the things I mention were supported across all the currents in the organisation. There is also a case for arguing that what made BF what it was can in large part be attributed to the dynamic created by the two different currents. The clash of different perspectives, sectors of work, etc. had for a long time a creative impact on the organisation. It was a good thing to have within it both people strongly asserting the importance of traditional aspects of BF politics, and others wanting to open up new questions. On the other hand, you can take this argument too far. The differences within BF clearly had negative effects as well as positive ones. They diverted attention inwards, and often prevented the organisation for following a clear path. Also, as I will discuss below, there is a difference between the impact over the short term and a situation where the same divisions have become entrenched over many years.

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