Paul Anderson visits the by-election campaign in Eric Heffer's old seat
The by-election campaign in Liverpool Walton got under way in earnest last weekend as members of the Militant Tendency from all over the country arrived to canvass for Lesley Mahmood, the Militant member standing as a "Real Labour" candidate against Labour's Peter Kilfoyle.
Most went home on Sunday, but there is still a large Militant presence on the rubbish-strewn streets of the north Liverpool constituency, dishing out leaflets and stickers printed in the same colours as Mr Kilfoyle's, though without the Labour rose. "They're doing their best to confuse the voters," says one of Mr Kilfoyle's campaign workers. "They're trying to give the impression that Kilfoyle was imposed on Walton by the Labour leadership even though Mahmood was the local choice. They're also insinuating that Kilfoyle voted for redundancies on the city council - and he's not even a councillor."
Ms Mahmood, a Liverpool city councillor expelled from the Labour Party this year for opposing the setting of the council's poll tax, denies the charge that she is running a dirty campaign or trying to confuse the voters. "I don't see how anyone can be confused," she says. "We are the real Labour Party in this city. I was selected by Walton Real Labour supporters. They've built the party in the area. I wouldn't want to be known as the official Labour candidate. He's Kinnock's yes-man."
Mr Kilfoyle makes a great show of steering clear of arguments about Liverpool Labour politics and Militant, at least for the time being. Labour is confident that Ms Mahmood will do herself damage by her constant repetition of Militant slogans – "everything from nationalise the top 150 monopolies to a workers' MP on a workers' wage," says a Kilfoyle supporter – and that any confusion about the identity of the Labour candidate will be quickly cleared up by the media coverage of the campaign.
The unspoken fear is not that Labour will lose but that its victory will not be crushing. Militant has few firm friends among the Walton electorate: an opinion poll published in the Liverpool Echo on Tuesday gave Mr Kilfoyle 40 per cent, with Paul Clark, the Liberal Democrat candidate, on 16 per cent and Ms Mahmood trailing on 9 per cent, just 2 points above the Tories' Berkeley Greenwood.
Nevertheless, there are worries in the Labour camp that the Kilfoyle campaign could be hampered by Militant intimidation of canvassers and that Ms Mahmood could yet benefit from popular opposition to the 1,000 council job cuts currently planned by Liverpool City Council's official Labour group in the face of a growing financial crisis.
The council is the largest single employer in the city, and feelings are running high, particularly among the council bin-men, whose industrial action against the cuts has left 12,000 tons of rubbish on the city's streets.
Ms Mahmood supports the industrial action. She is campaigning on a platform of "no redundancies and no rent rises", and is hoping to emulate the success of the "Real Labour" candidates run by the Militant-dominated Broad Left in last month's local elections. Five out of six candidates put up against official Labour candidates for the city council won their seats, one of them in Walton.
Her opponents argue that she is advancing not practical policies but Trotskyist "transitional demands", designed to be attractive but impossible to implement. The idea, according to the theory, is that workers "taken through the experience" of having their hopes dashed will become more receptive to revolutionary socialism.
If there is any place where workers should have been radicalised by Militant slogans, it is Walton. The constituency is the cradle of the entrist sect: as long ago as 1955, Ted Grant, the leader of the Trotskyist group that became the Revolutionary Socialist League later the same year and started publishing Militant newspaper in 1964, just missed being selected as Labour parliamentary candidate for Walton. In the 1959 general election, the Labour candidate, George McCartney, who lost to a Tory, was an RSL sympathiser.
Although Eric Heifer, who was MP for Walton from 1964 and whose death caused the by-election, was never in Militant, Walton was the base that Militant used to extend its influence throughout the Liverpool Labour Party as the old right-wing Labour machine declined in the sixties and seventies, coming eventually to dominate the city council in the early eighties.
Even though its sway over the constituency Labour Party has been much reduced by expulsions in the past five years, many of them the responsibility of Mr Kilfoyle, until recently Labour's north-west regional organiser, the tendency retains a strong influence in the area, particularly in the trade unions. The Walton by-election seemed to Militant to be an ideal opportunity to exact its revenge on its tormentors in the Labour Party nationally and locally.
If the opinion polls are anything like accurate, however, it seems more likely that Militant, either through desperation or stupidity, has overplayed its hand. Certainly, whatever happens in the by-election, the future now looks almost impossible for Militant inside the Labour Party.
It is difficult to see how Militant supporters who have managed to stay in the Labour Party since the expulsions began can possibly survive the wrath of all sections of the party after their organisation has run a candidate against Labour in a parliamentary by-election: the position of the two Militant MPs, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, is particularly sticky.
Militant knew this before deciding to run Ms Mahmood, but was gambling on using a good showing in Walton as the basis for establishing itself as a credible Leninist party far more outside Labour than inside. If, however, as seems likely, Ms Mahmood does badly, the Tendency's credibility will be wrecked. As Trotsky himself might have put it, The Revolutionary Socialist League seems to be heading straight for the unemptied dustbin of history.