Twenty Campaigning years

Sid French; always a strong voice for the Communist case

Since its formation in 1977, the New Communist Party has worked for peace, socialism and proletarian internationalism. It has taken part in the day to day struggles of the working class and supported the progressive demands of the broad movement while never losing sight of the need to bring about a fundamental social change in order to begin building a socialist society.

New Worker editor Ann Rogers talked to MAISIE CARTER, the NCP's South London District Secretary and a founder member, about the work of the Party and some of the many campaigns and activities the Party has taken part in over the last two decades.

ANN ROGERS: Can I begin by asking you about the beginning of the Party.

MAISIE CARTER: When the break with the Communist Party of Great Britain approached I have to say that, though I was supportive in every way of what the comrades were doing, I did at first have certain reservations about it.

This was because I have always considered the principle of democratic centralism to be fundamentally important -- and of course it is. Breaking with the CPGB was not therefore something to be taken lightly.

But when the time came I did not hesitate to go with my comrades and join the NCP. I think I had known all along that it was the right decision after such a long struggle against revisionism inside the CPGB. It had been a twelve-year long fight -- in fact, I think it may have been even longer than that.

Remembering those days, I must say that the comrades who became founder members of the NCP will always remember the leadership of the Party's first general secretary, Sid French.

My memories of Sid are those of a tremendous fighter who inspired confidence in the comrades. He also had a good sense of humour which was invaluable in times of difficulty and struggle.

Once the decision to form the NCP had been taken there was the most overwhelming feeling of relief -- liberation even. After all those years of what I can only describe as "creeping revisionism" the formation of the NCP brought an end to the frustration -- it was like being set free.

I know we all felt that we had made the right decision and there was a tremendous sense of purpose in all the comrades.

AR: Within a couple of years of the Party's formation we saw the start of, what was to become, an 18-year period of Tory rule. There was a growing need for campaigns to defend the interests of the working class. What do you remember of that time and the Party's work in your own district?

MC: Not long after the Party was formed there was a major strike by the fire-fighters. Our comrades were really active and joined the picket lines in solidarity. The New Worker, of course, carried regular reports of the strike and we sold many copies of the paper to the strikers. This supportive action was one of the earliest actions we took as a new party.

We were also out on the streets with Party leaflets opposing cuts in public spending. I can remember doing this with another woman comrade when we were approached by a man from the local newspaper.

He asked what we were doing and who we were. When we told him he said he was really surprised that "two such pleasant looking, presentable ladies" should be communists.

Anyway, we had quite a long chat with him and he asked me to write an article about the NCP for the local paper. Of course I did this and we got a double-page spread.

I really do think this sort of public activity is very important. 

This was also the start of the Tory's programme of privatisations. Merton, which was Tory-controlled, was one of the first places in the country to suffer from these policies. It zealously operated the Thatcher government's ideas and introduced more swingeing education cuts than any other London borough at that time.

As a result there were many protests which our party supported and took part in. The teachers went on strike against the cuts and the school meals staff took action too in defence of their wages and the school meals service itself.

Before long everywhere in the country faced these kind of problems.

AR: The Party has always had a clear anti-imperialist stance. One of the earliest anti-imperialist struggles for our Party must have been the campaign against the Malvinas (Falklands) War.

MC: Yes, the paper took a very clear line against the jingoism and the war. But the paper was almost a lone voice.

I clearly remember people I worked with in those days, reasonable people, who supported the war and believed a! the time it was right. It seemed to have played a big part in enabling Margaret Thatcher to get elected for a second term.

It was surprising to see how quickly the capitalist media was able to influence so many people into cheering on the task-force and vilifying Argentina.

Of course there was opposition in the peace movement and among the peace activists and there were marches against the war. Our comrades took part in these national events.

AR: But for all the imperialist tub-thumping about the Malvinas War, these were years of growth for the peace movement.

MC: Yes, there were huge demonstrations and a great deal of activity. The arrival of American Cruise Missiles provoked enormous protests.

All of a sudden, it seemed, CND groups began to get these really meetings. Every kind of campaigning action was taken -from leafleting, people performing street theatre, film showings, public meetings, marches (both local and national) to vigils and demonstrations outside nuclear bases and letter writing campaigns to MPs and ministers.

I remember that the Party's Women's Committee sent a delegation of comrades to the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common as well as making individual visits by comrades.

Throughout the country the activity for peace is much less now, but our local peace group is one that is still going and still campaigning. We still have a lot to do, not least to get rid of Trident.

There was a new challenge to the movement as the nineties began -- the imperialist war against Iraq.

Certainly there was strong opposition to the war and the national demonstrations for peace were large, Vigils took place in Trafalgar Square every Friday while the war was on.

But, though many opposed the actual war, the NCP and the New Worker were once again almost alone in standing against the imposition of sanctions against Iraq. We said that sanctions were a precursor to war.

We are still opposing these sanctions which have caused dreadful suffering and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

Imperialism has of course long used the weapon of sanctions against countries that in some way stand in its way.

We have always opposed the United States blockade against Cuba and comrades up and down the country support the broad movement in solidarity with Cuba.

Sanctions were also used against Vietnam and more recently against Libya and Serbia. They have always brought misery to millions and should not be tolerated.

The progressive movement has also had times when we could all rejoice. One of these high moments was the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. This defeat of state-backed racism was a tremendous event.

AR: There were a number of important struggles over jobs, wages and working conditions, including the miners' strike of 1984-5. What do you remember about these events?

MC: Not a week went by without supportive coverage of the strike in the New Worker. The Party and the paper called on all comrades to support, join and, where they didn't already exist, to set up miners' support groups to give solidarity and practical assistance.

I remember raising this at Merton Trades Council when it came up in correspondence. Of course they responded tremendously. Very quickly the trades council had collected thousands of pounds worth of goods for the miners.

The striking miners, and their wives, worked tirelessly -travelling around the country to talk to meetings putting forward the miners' case.

Often comrades gave hospitality on these occasions as well as making contact with individual pits and communities.

The miners' strike won very widespread support and the left as a whole took part in the work of solidarity and support.

One of the most successful struggles was that waged by the engineering workers for the 35 hour week without loss of pay. Engineers up and down the country stood solid on this demand and eventually won a reduction in hours to 37 hours a week.

Once again our party and the New Worker supported the engineers throughout the fight.

The engineering workers were not solely fighting for a shorter working week. They were also struggling against the attack on the principle of collective national bargaining and job losses caused by sub-contracting of support services such as security and maintenance work at large plants like the Aerospace factory we used to have at Kingston.

Unemployment was becoming a serious problem and struggles over hours, conditions and wages were vitally important in defending jobs.

AR: The attacks of the past years against the working class have been made on all fronts. How did the Party in your area cope with such a relentless onslaught?

MC: Well, the Party always tried to provide us with campaigning materials such as leaflets and so on. But in addition to that we produced things locally. This was a good thing because we could respond to local problems quickly.

We were of course totally opposed to the privatisation programme. This meant campaigning locally where people were directly affected. For instance in defending council housing from the Tories' Housing Act and the selling-off council homes and the loss of local authority control over housing.

We also campaigned against the privatisation of the public utilities like water, gas and electricity.

All over the country local campaigns against cuts in health and education spending sprang up.

These are not things of the past. We are still working against cuts and privatisations including, these days, the private finance initiative (PFI), which is privatisation In a different guise.

Our comrades are still active in local organisations set up to defend the NHS and protect local hospitals and services from closure.

The campaign, which we took part in, to save the Royal Marsden Hospital achieved a million petition signatures. There were some good successes -like the reprieve for Guys Hospital and we had a victory in saving one of our local hospitals from closure

AR: Our 20th anniversary has coincided with a massive defeat for the Tories and the election of a Labour government. What has been the reaction to this election victory?

MC: Morale has been lifted considerably in the labour movement and as our paper has said, people's expectations have risen.

But we know that we must continue campaigning as before. I wondered what the response would be when people saw us campaigning one week for a new government and then after the election saying that we still had to keep up the pressure and activity.

But in fact the reaction to us was very positive and I think many people do understand that just going out and voting is not enough.

There was a good feeling just after the election. Many people came up to the trades council street stall and said how happy they were that there is now a Labour government and that they supported policies such as cutting class sizes in schools and better funding for the NHS.

But I must say that in the last week or so there has also been justified criticism of the government. Speculation about prescription charges and the possibility of NHS charges have caused dismay.

But it shows how important it was for our Party to have been saying all along that activity and campaigning work has to continue and will have to go on.

We have, right from the start, always felt very proud of the Party and confident of speaking of the socialist society we are working towards.

At the beginning our public work had a quality of boldness about it. We felt strongly that on all the issues we campaigned on our Party was able to explain the nature of capitalist society and point the way to the future -- a socialist society.

Our perspective remains the same. It is still our task to talk about the necessity of socialism -- after all it is what all the problems of the world are crying out for.

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