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Red Flag Over St Pancras

Bob Pitt

This is the fourth and final part of a study of the John Lawrence group and their activities in the St Pancras labour movement in the late 1950s. The previous part (in What Next? No.10) recounted how Lawrence and his comrades were expelled from the Labour Party following the scandal attending St Pancras Borough Council’s decision to fly the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May Day 1958.

ON MONDAY 24 November 1958 the Daily Worker devoted a front page article plus pictures to its report that John Lawrence, together with six other members of the Independent Socialist Group on St Pancras Council, had officially joined the Communist Party at its Central London Area conference that weekend. The others were Hilda Lane, David Goldhill, councillors Roy Beecham, John Edwards and Phil Sheridan, and Alderman Kathleen Sheridan. They were joined by about a dozen former rank-and-file Labour Party members who had been expelled during the reorganisation of Holborn and St Pancras South, including Irene Goldhill.

The Daily Worker reported: "Councillor Lawrence, addressing the conference, said that none of the seven St Pancras Councillors had joined the Communist Party because they were bitter or despondent about being expelled from the Labour Party. Good socialists were not frightened of expulsion but were worried at being thrown out into a political wilderness. It was necessary to build a strong Communist Party so that militant socialists in the Labour Party could have an answer to the threat of expulsion. ‘We shall continue to strive for the greatest possible unity in the labour movement’, concluded Councillor Lawrence. ‘I hope that we shall prove as good comrades to the Communist Party as I am sure you will prove to us’, said Mrs Lane."

In an article entitled "Why I Joined", published in the CP journal Labour Monthly, Hilda Lane expanded on the Lawrence group’s reasons for taking this step. "My one big regret", she wrote, "is that the expulsions in St Pancras, although many have been recruited to the Communist Party, have meant that others are lost to the labour movement. In its haste to ‘reorganise’ St Pancras, the Labour leadership at Transport House not only made some members of the Communist Party, which is something I am sure they are not exactly gloating over today, but they expelled and isolated several very loyal and active political workers. Not everyone who refused to capitulate to their threats found it possible to join the Communist Party.... We shall have to build the CP to attract such comrades, or the present policies of the Labour Party will lose them to the movement. It is clear now that there are really only two policies to choose from in Britain: that of the Labour Party leadership, and that of the CP."

David Goldhill points out that their entry into the CP has to be seen in the context of the situation after the CPSU 20th Congress in 1956, when Khrushchev had denounced the crimes of Stalin and announced the inauguration of a new liberal era in the Soviet Union. "The atmosphere was that the Communist Party bureaucracy was completely shocked and the ordinary members disorientated, and there was a real thought that it might actually become a more democratic party, and there was a real chance of getting inside and helping to change the party. That was one of the main motivations that I remember. The 20th Congress had changed the whole attitude. There was the main Russian party apparently being prepared to admit to its errors and reform itself, and the British party would have to lurch in that direction. We went in as a group, and as we had very good relations with the local party it looked as though we might actually become a democratic cell inside that and try and work outwards. We thought that the Stalinists were changing – there was Khrushchev saying that everything was going to be different. It turned out that it wasn’t going to be different for very long. But there was a period when it really did look hopeful. Maybe we were stupid to think that, but it did look as though all the barriers were going down."

Goldhill recalls that the group was to remain in the CP for less than a year before they were told that their political views were incompatible with party membership and they were politely asked to leave! However, in November 1958 there was as yet little sign of political differences with the CP. In an interview with the North London Press, John Lawrence explained that "we agree with the policies and aims of the Communist Party and think membership of the party is the best way for furthering Socialism in the Labour Party".

Lawrence stated that they would remain part of the Independent Socialist Group. "We shall not form a Communist group on the council, because we were not elected on that basis. We shall continue to act in a group with the other five councillors who have not joined the Communist Party and Councillor Stallard will continue as group chairman. Although the other five councillors have not joined the party, their policies and views are much the same as ours and we see no point in breaking from them." Asked about his plans for the council elections in May 1959, Lawrence said he could not say what the CP would do, but "if we are chosen we shall all stand again for election, and if we do we shall fight as Communist candidates. The party has had a pretty rough time in recent years, but I think things are moving our way now. It is the only party in this country which stands unequivocally for a Socialist policy. I am sure we shall get a lot of support from the people of St Pancras".

Reactions by the six members of the Independent Socialist Group who had not joined the Communists were varied, though they were all agreed they would not seek re-election in May. Jock Stallard stated that he intended to carry on as chairman of the Independent Socialist Group, and "to fight for a continuance of our present policies". He said that he had no intention of joining the Communist Party but had not decided whether to apply for readmission to the Labour Party at some time in the future. "There’s no future for independents on the council and, of course, the chances of getting returned as an independent are very remote." Alderman Charlie Taylor stated that he wouldn’t be joining the Communist Party, as did Councillor Stewart Phelan. Councillor George McKew said that while he wouldn’t become a member he intended to work with the CP, and would probably canvass for them in the May elections: "I wish them all the luck in the world. I wouldn’t rejoin the Labour Party if they paid me." Only one expelled councillor, Emmanuel Borg, was openly hostile to the Lawrence group’s decision to join the CP. He announced his resignation from the Independent Socialist Group and stated his intention to continue as a completely independent member of the council.

Lawrence’s former comrades in Gerry Healy’s organisation published an unsigned article in their paper The Newsletter, under the heading "John Lawrence: A Political Obituary". This contained the scurrilous accusation that, in joining the Communist Party, Lawrence was "looking for a ready-made way out of the working class". But it gave details of Lawrence’s long career in the Trotskyist movement, and stated that "his desertion to Stalinism now will not remove the good he did during those years, which will remain as a foundation stone of the Marxist movement". The article went on to lambast the "Pabloite" conceptions which it claimed underpinned Lawrence’s political evolution: "At the core of his abandonment of Marxism is his conception of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China. He believes that this bureaucracy can liberalise itself, and that this will encourage the Communist Parties to do the same. Fabians believe that capitalist society will gradually become socialist; Lawrence adopts a Fabian brand of Stalinism: he pins his hopes on a gradual evolution. Marxists, however, believe that it is necessary to construct new Marxist parties, and to prepare consciously for the overthrow of the bureaucracies and the establishment of real socialism. Lawrence throws up the sponge at the very time when a large number of Communist Party members, many of long standing, are finding their way to Marxism for the very first time. His retreat from Marxist principles will serve as one more landmark in the education of these new forces."

IN THE MEANTIME, the district auditor had begun an inquiry into the finances of St Pancras Borough Council. He had been brought in after the Tories, masquerading as concerned local residents, had objected to the council’s expenditure. Two main issues arose – the refusal to organise Civil Defence, which had resulted in the Home Office charging the council for administering it centrally, and the decision to subsidise the rents of tenants in derequisitioned properties. The district auditor quickly reached the conclusion that St Pancras Borough Council had "acted in such a perverse and unreasonable way as to put the ratepayers of the borough at a loss". When it became clear that he was going to surcharge them, the official Labour Group began to look for a way to retreat.

At the November council meeting the Tories presented a motion calling for the existing policies on Civil Defence and rents to be abandoned, in response to which the official Labour Group put up only timid amendments. These were defeated by a combined vote of the Tories and the Independent Socialist Group, and the Tory motion finally went through by 18 votes to 9, with the official Labour Group abstaining.

One of the Labour amendments, on Civil Defence, moved by Alderman Lena Jeger, criticised the Tory government’s policy at great length. But it agreed under protest to organise Civil Defence in the borough and asked the government to make the statutory grant available retrospectively. The amendment was vigorously opposed by John Lawrence on behalf of the Independent Socialist Group. One of the reasons why they had refused council support for Civil Defence, he pointed out, was that they wished to register a protest against the "criminal irresponsibility" of the government in relation to nuclear armament. "We threw out Civil Defence as a protest against the idea of mixing up the affairs of a local council with the war effort of the Tory government", Lawrence argued. "We shall now be a laughing stock if we allow this Tory motion to be carried." The amendment was defeated by 31 votes to 29, with the Independent Socialist Group going into the division lobby to vote with the Tories.

The Tories gloated over their Labour opponents discomfiture, and sought to rubbish St Pancras Council’s record of political militancy. "Lawrence went ahead with the idea that this council was a law unto itself and could defy the government and the law of the land", Tory leader Donovan said. "The Labour Group took over a very terrible legacy from Councillor Lawrence and we find St Pancras Council today in a very sorry state." Donovan claimed that his motion gave the council an opportunity to clear up the wreckage of the misguided policies of the past two years and so return to "sane and responsible local government". He dismissed Mrs Jeger’s amendment as "all froth and words" to cover the Labour Group’s retreat. They knew that the district auditor was "after their pockets", Donovan sneered, and they were "off to the rat-holes".

Nor were the Tories averse to expressing bogus sympathy with Lawrence himself, now he had been removed from power, in order to taunt the official Labour Group. Prior, the Conservative whip, declared: "We admire Lawrence because he sticks to his principles and does not run away, although his principles are obnoxious to me. He is worth more than all the rest of the majority party put together. The Labour majority party are afraid of their own skin, and this has been an abject humiliation of that Party. One can admire the Independent Socialist Group who are prepared to stick to their guns come what may. We forecast eighteen months ago that you would be forced to eat your own words and reverse your actions. You are doing just that now and it is an ignominious and miserable spectacle."

Lawrence condemned any compromise with the Tory demands for a review of rents, which he argued would inevitably herald increases for council tenants. Pointing to the Labour Group, he said: "I warn you here and now that if this happens – I will give you fair notice – I will do my best outside the council chamber to organise the council tenants against this treachery. The district auditor is an accountant whose job is to see that we do not fiddle the books, but he came here to dictate our rents policy. We have done nothing illegal because many local authorities are sick and tired of district auditors terrorising them." Lawrence contemptuously rejected the Tories’ hypocritical declarations of sympathy. "Take no notice of them – Macmillan’s monsters", he said, indicating the Tory Group. "When we flew that Red Flag on the town hall it symbolised our defiance of the Tory government. Do not haul down the flag until the fight is won."

Two days later, the district auditor arrived at St Pancras Town Hall to hear representations from the 23 councillors who he had decided were open to surcharge as a result of the council’s housing subsidies. Once again, it was John Lawrence who pugnaciously defended St Pancras council’s housing policy. "Not alone is there a moral obligation here for which I was prepared to chance my arm, but it is clear also that we act within our legal rights as a Council", Lawrence declared. Claiming that all questions of "reasonableness" in matters of council rents were exclusively the province of the council itself, he demanded: "Don’t you think it was rather odious for a district auditor to have to ferret out what is reasonable or unreasonable in this matter?"

St Pancras was a very wealthy borough, he went on, but nobody could accuse the council of wasting public money. They had even cut the mayor’s allowance, Lawrence pointed out, by the amount of which the district auditor was contemplating surcharging them. He said that if the Tory Group on the council succeeded in having the Socialist and Labour councillors surcharged they could "overturn and upset" the whole rent policy of the council. "I am on the council to carry out a certain political policy and nobody has suggested that what we have done on this council has been beyond our legal powers. If they feel that we have not been reasonable on this matter the public can throw us out at the next election." Socialists would reiterate what they had said throughout the years: "The rich must help the poor in these matters."

Such arguments were lost on the district auditor, however. Although the councillors escaped surcharge over Civil Defence, in March 1959 the district auditor announced that they would be surcharged the total sum of £200 for their action in subsidising rents during the 1957-8 financial year. The official Labour Group appealed (without success) to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, but the Independent Socialist Group decided to contest the decision in the High Court. Their appeal was lodged in the name of Charles Taylor, David Goldhill, John Lawrence, Philip Sheridan, Jock Stallard and Hilda Lane. The case finally came before the High Court in October 1960, by which time the district auditor had imposed a further surcharge of £1,400 for 1958-9. Not unexpectedly, the appeal was dismissed. "I hope," John Lawrence told the judge, when the verdict was announced, "that I have served my class as well as you have served yours."

In April 1959 Lawrence became involved in a public exchange with his old enemy Gerry Healy, arising out of a letter Morgan Phillips had sent to all Constituency Labour Parties informing them that the NEC had proscribed Healy’s new organisation, the Socialist Labour League. The letter commented in passing that the SLL was now the main Trotskyist threat because of the "disintegration of the St Pancras group" due to some of them having joined the CP. Anxious to deny any association with the Trotskyist movement now he was in the CP, Lawrence told the North London Press that he was "proud to be a member of the Communist Party" and added that "the so-called ‘Trotskyists’ are as anti-communist as Morgan Phillips".

This brought the following response from Healy, which was also published in the North London Press: "John Lawrence was a leading member of the Trotskyist movement for many years, and the fact that he left to join the Communist Party does not give him the right to misinterpret opinions on which he once stood. The Socialist Labour League is in defence of the USSR against world imperialism, but this defence does not mean the acceptance of Khrushchev and Stalin. We believe it is right to support the Soviet Union, but we must have the right to criticise the Soviet leadership. Otherwise it is impossible to maintain our position as socialists. John Lawrence is an opponent of bureaucracy on St Pancras Borough Council, but he does not oppose the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union – where some people receive 156 times as much as the average worker. He once said that the mayor of St Pancras should hop on a bus. Why doesn’t he tell the mayor of Moscow to hop on a bus?"

Healy had a point. But his criticisms of Lawrence’s attitude to the bureaucracy in the USSR would have carried rather more weight if Healy had supported Lawrence and his comrades against their common enemy, the bureaucracy in the Labour Party. Though The Newsletter had critically defended Lawrence when he was first expelled – "There is little to be said for adventurism by left-wingers in the Labour Party; there is nothing to be said for witch-hunts" – the paper carried no coverage of Lawrence’s fight for reinstatement. Nor is there any evidence that the Healyites actively backed the campaign inside the Labour Party. Apart from Salford East, where SLL member Harry Ratner was prominent, the CLPs in which the Healyites had influence were noticeably absent from the list of those calling for Lawrence’s reinstatement.

With elections due in early May 1959, the 1956 St Pancras Borough Council was now in its final weeks. At the March council meeting Labour leader Charles Ratchford said the Labour Group had every intention of flying the Red Flag on May Day but would do so in the new mood of compromise which had developed in the Labour group since John Lawrence’s expulsion. "The Red Flag is the flag of the working class throughout the world", Ratchford stated. "We are the British Labour Party, however, and so we intend to fly the Union Jack as well." But this was unacceptable to the Tories, who denounced it as "an insult to our national emblem", and equally to the Independent Socialist Group, who regarded it as an insult to the Red Flag. The two groups combined to vote down the Labour proposal on the general purposes committee, and on May Day 1959 the Red Flag flew over the Town Hall for a second year, though without the dramatic scenes of twelve months earlier.

But the outgoing council finished on a characteristically confrontational note. At the final council meeting before the election, at the end of April, the Tories launched their attack both on the Red Flag and on a proposal to make trade union membership compulsory for council employees as from 1 May. The North London Press reported: "The last meeting of the 1956-elected St Pancras Borough Council proved to be the stormiest and possibly the longest of all the council meetings. It lasted for more than four hours and debates were constantly interrupted by speakers arguing at the tops of their voices and by several members all trying to speak at once. Interruptions were not confined to the floor of the chamber; a man in the public gallery persisted in shouting and asking questions, and eventually left at the request of the Mayor, Councillor Tom Barker. Without doubt it was Councillor Barker’s busiest meeting since he became mayor. He was continually on his feet calling for order or trying to hammer down an interrupting speaker. At the end of the meeting, a small group in one of the galleries, led by Mr John Taylor, the Communist organiser, started singing the Red Flag, and this was taken up by the entire Independent Socialist Group, and a few members of the Labour Party."

The May elections, however, proved to be a serious setback for the labour movement in St Pancras. The Tories took control of St Pancras Borough Council with 33 councillors as against Labour’s 27. "Red Flag Council Turns Blue" read a headline in the Hampstead and Highgate Express. John Lawrence and Hilda Lane, who stood as Communist candidates in Somers Town, fared even worse. They finished at the bottom of the poll, with 232 and 217 votes respectively, compared with over 1300 for the successful Labour candidates. "The people of St Pancras have spoken with a clear and emphatic voice", Tory leader Donovan proclaimed. "As a result, the Red Flag, the closed shop and other idiocies will immediately find their way into the limbo of Socialist lunacy."

This defeat must be seen in the context of a general swing against Labour, which lost 217 seats nationally; and in St Pancras the party in fact polled 3,000 more votes altogether than the Tories. But for the Tories to overturn such a comfortable Labour majority was a disastrous result however you look at it. The blame lay entirely with the Labour right wing. As the example of Liverpool and Lambeth Councils was to demonstrate again in later years, a Labour council pursuing militant policies against a Tory government doesn’t lose votes – it wins them. Electoral support evaporates only when the Labour Party leadership witch-hunts and expels local activists, and the Labour council retreats from its policy of confrontation.

Before the election John Lawrence had warned that a Tory victory in St Pancras would be "disastrous for all working people. Borough council tenants especially will have cause to regret it since they will have to face savage rent increases if the Conservatives, the landlords’ party, get control of the Town Hall". Indeed Paul Prior, who succeeded Donovan as Tory leader, made it clear that their central concern was to overturn the council’s housing policy – and one of the first decisions they took was to impose a general rise in council rents. This was to provoke a bitter clash between the Tory council and the tenants. It led to the famous St Pancras rent strike, in which John Lawrence and the other comrades who had been driven out of the Labour Party played an important role.

That struggle, which falls outside the scope of this account, mobilised mass action on a scale far greater the Lawrence-led Labour council had been able to do. Indeed, the dramatic events of the rent strike have tended to overshadow the preceding battle within the council and the Labour Party. But the political activities of the Lawrence group deserve a full account, not least as an example of a Marxist tendency seeking ways to work in the mass movement. Whatever criticisms might be made of the group’s methods, today when New Labour is attempting to undermine the very existence of a political workers’ movement, in order to make pragmatic appeals to Middle England backed up by techniques picked up from the advertising industry, socialists will readily identify with the Lawrence group’s fight for class politics on St Pancras Borough Council, symbolised by the flying of the Red Flag over St Pancras Town Hall.

From What Next? No.14 1999