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Who are you calling an old Trot?
 
A chance remark by The Independent's Robert Fisk about the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has opened a Pandora's box of arcane political enmities. Francis Beckett relishes the fight

27 November 2004

At the tail end of the 1960s, a revolutionary star was born. Throughout 1968, the National Union of Students had remained in the hands of the old guard - they had refused to flay Harold Wilson for not condemning the US war in Vietnam. But the new left saw them as reactionary 1950s hangovers, with their suits, short hair and polite lobbying when they could have been taking to the streets. "Sherry diplomacy" they called it.

Then in 1969 the old guard was defeated. The NUS president, Trevor Fisk, was swept from office by a new, thrusting young socialist, with long, dark hair, piercing eyes, left-wing fervour, an attractive hesitancy of speech, and an impossibly romantic and evocative name: Jack Straw.

He came to office as head of the Broad Left, then a coalition of communists, Trotskyists, and young left-wingers from the Labour and Liberal parties, in which the communists dominated. The Radical Students Alliance and the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation cheered him to the rafters. A new dawn had broken, freer, fresher, fairer, and infinitely more fun.

That passionate young man is now the grey and ponderous Foreign Secretary, who uses phrases like "in my judgement" and sends young men to fight a US war. He doesn't at all like being called an old Trot, which is how Robert Fisk described him in The Independent when reporting his appearance at Yasser Arafat's funeral.

Mr Straw claimed, in a letter to the paper, that he has been "consistent in my opposition to Trotskyism". For those who know the secret language of 1960s and 1970s revolution, he dropped some enticing hints about his past. Trotskyism, he said, engenders "false consciousness", which is the phrase used by the Trotskyists' bitter enemies in the Communist Party. Then came the alarming and hitherto unknown scrap of information that he was "taught to spot a Trot at 50 yards in 1965 by Mr Bert Ramelson". The late Ramelson was the most influential communist in Britain, an intimate of many trade-union leaders and politicians, whose faith survived even the discovery in 1956 that his sister had spent 20 years in a Soviet labour camp.

If, at the age of 19, our Foreign Secretary sat at the feet of Ramelson, we may be sure he was never contaminated with Trotskyism. Any self-respecting Trotskyist would have called him a Stalinist. Even worse, they would say he had an "incorrect Marxist analysis". And that was deadly. A vague preference for capitalism might be forgiven, but an incorrect analysis reserved you a place in front of the firing squad, come the revolution.

Mr Straw's letter brought out all the old hatreds. One correspondent wrote furiously that Mr Straw misunderstands Isaac Deutscher's three-volume tome on Trotsky. Not only that, wrote another: his interpretation of Lenin's Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was about as incorrect an analysis as it could be. Mr Straw hit back. Trots, he wrote, are "such a humourless bunch". And to prove his superiority in the humour stakes, he added the side-splitting observations that the sins of Trots included "revanchism, false consciousness, and objectively counter-revolutionary tendencies". There were more laughs to come: "Two of your correspondents claim that because Lenin hardly mentioned Trotsky in his polemic Left Wing Communism..., this tract could not have contained the 'prescient warning' against Trotskyism, as I had asserted. Fortunately, the Foreign Office library still has Lenin's complete works..."

Strong revolutionaries blanch at this sort of thing. Mr Straw was back in the bitter hatred between "Trots" and "Stalinists". Theirs was a tribal loathing dating to the 1920s, when Trotsky was outmanoeuvred by Stalin and driven out of the Soviet Union, only to be killed in Mexico in 1940 by a Soviet agent who embedded an ice pick in his head. When Mr Straw ran the NUS, student Trotskyists talked bitterly about "ice-pick ideology" and student communists made dark jokes about how the ice pick caused Trotsky, for the first time, to have an open mind. So it was hardly surprisingly that the coalition Mr Straw led soon fell apart, with the Trotskyists leaving the Stalinist broad left. The Trots then split into ever tinier fragments.

By 1975, the broad left consisted entirely of communists and the left wing of the Labour Party, and it again captured the NUS presidency. Its candidate was another bright young idealist, a big man with a big bushy beard. He was consumed by idealistic determination to extract better student grants from the government, and to protect the working class by keeping Britain out of the capitalist club known as the European Economic Community. It was the first time, but not the last, that the world heard of Charles Clarke.

Mr Clarke led demonstrations every year against the harsh treatment meted out to students. Student grants, they said, were not keeping up with inflation. And the grants were means tested, so that all but the poorest were humiliatingly forced to top them up from the parental wallet. It was monstrous. But it would all be put right, now that the NUS had left-wing leaders willing to fight for their members.

Today, the Government of which they are both leading members - and in which Clarke is Education Secretary - has put it all right. There are almost no grants any more, and students now pay fees. Marvellous what a little idealism in high places can achieve.

Mr Clarke and Mr Straw are far from being the only reformed student lefties in the Government (see box below). As far as we know, the Health Secretary, John Reid, an ardent Scottish communist for years, and one of Mr Clarke's communist backers, is perfectly polite to a predecessor at Health, Alan Milburn, which is more than he would have been had the two met in Mr Milburn's Trot days.

Indeed, today's Cabinet is stuffed full of ex-Trots, who have worked passage back to respectability, their sins more or less forgotten and forgiven. The group of council leaders who made life uncomfortable for Labour's leadership in the early 1980s, for instance, was led by that fiercely left-wing leader of Sheffield City Council, David Blunkett.

But the Labour Party's most feared left-wing firebrand was a young man called Paul Boateng. As one of Ken Livingstone's chief lieutenants when Mr Livingstone led the GLC, he even embarrassed his leader with the fury of his convictions.His fate is a warning to all old lefties. In working his passage back, as old Trots must do for Blairism is as rigid and unforgiving a religion as that they have deserted, Mr Boateng's penance was to be wheeled out to attack Ken's first bid to become London's Mayor. The current Chief Secretary to the Treasury did it with all the fire and fury he used to direct at Mr Livingstone's enemies. Now, none of his old friends will speak to him. It was almost as bad as an incorrect analysis.

HOW RED IS THE LABOUR PARTY?

Old Trots and old Stalinists now glower at each other across the Cabinet table, where they feel at home because Blairism demands the religious loyalty they are used to. They include:

THE STALINIST WING

Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary Former Broad Left president of the NUS; branded "a troublemaker" by the Foreign Office when, on an NUS trip to Chile, his "childish politicking" aimed at embarrassing his right-wing opponents, was "nearly disastrous" for Anglo-Chilean relations.

Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education Former Broad Left president of NUS; led demonstrations for higher student grants, and was, he admits, "a strong opponent of the foreign policy of the USA".

John Reid, Secretary of State for Health Former Communist and researcher for the Scottish Union of Students. Claimed he joined the CP because it was the only non-Trotskyist political group on campus when he was an undergraduate student at Stirling University.

Peter Mandelson, European Commissioner Former Communist and chairman of the British Youth Council. Led a BYC delegation to Cuba in the 1970s.

Trevor Phillips, chairman, Commission for Racial Equality Former Broad Left president of NUS, led sit-ins, went to Cuba with Mandelson's delegation.

Alan Johnson, Work and Pensions Secretary Says he was close to the Communist Party in his youth, and gets agitated if you suggest he might have been a Trot.

THE TROTSKYITE WING

Gordon Brown, Chancellor Showed political colours by choosing to do his PhD thesis on James Maxton, the leader of the rebel Independent Labour Party in the 1920s and 1930s. The ILP was accused by Stalin of being a Trotskyist front.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election planner

Before joining Labour Party in 1983, Milburn was the manager of a socialist bookshop in Newcastle, and a CND activist, described, by Roy Hattersley, as "incapable of writing an election manifesto without drawing the battle lines of the philosophical struggle".

Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Former left-wing rebel. Once called on Labour Party to "have the guts to support workers who have the guts to fight Thatcher".

Denis MacShane, minister for Europe Former left-wing NUJ leader, arrested on picket lines in the 1970s, once alongside Arthur Scargill. Led the NUJ's biggest strike.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary Former leader of Sheffield City Council, which was known as "the socialist republic of South Yorkshire".

Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children Former leader of Islington Council where she had a bust of Lenin installed in the town hall. During her tenure, it became known as the "Socialist Republic of north London".

NEITHER ... NOR ...

Tony Blair, Prime Minister Not known to have believed in anything when young, except God.

'The Blairs and Their Court' by Francis Beckett and David Hencke is published by Aurum