Veteran Trotskyist and Leeds activist Norman Harding passed away in December. He was 84.
For the last 25 years Norman had been a key figure in Leeds Tenants’ Federation and pensioners’ rights campaigns. Before that he was a prominent member of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) and the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). He wrote about his experiences in a highly readable and cautionary autobiography Staying Red — Why I Remain A Revolutionary Socialist.
Norman was a shop steward in a textile factory and member of Leeds Labour Party when he joined the SLL in the late 1950s, then the biggest Trotskyist group in Britain. Norman was attracted by the group’s sharp attacks on the still powerful Communist Party.
As a young trade union militant Norman had already clashed with the conservative and bizarre Russian chauvinism of Communist Party shop stewards and union officers. He became one of the SLL’s key organisers in the Labour Party’s youth section, which the group dominated and radicalised until, over-confident after some successes, the SLL walked out in 1963-4.
He helped run workplace bulletins and a local paper for West Yorkshire mining communities called The Miner. Norman thought the work he and others did around the Normanton rent strike of the mid 60s using The Miner as an organising tool was some of the best work the SLL ever did.
However, its internal life was always authoritarian and became worse. The group was led by Gerry Healy, who became a self-serving bully, and who, in old age, was indicted as a serial sexual predator. Norman claimed he was always wary of Healy and more impressed by the general work the group did.
Later Norman moved to London to help run the print department of the group. He was at the centre of the SLL as it transformed itself into a cult. All work became about building “The Party” (the SLL changed its name to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, WRP). A lot was about building Healy’s cult of personality.
The WRP became ever more shrill in their catastrophic revolutionary predictions and support for “anti-imperialist” nationalist or Stalinist dictators.
Norman talked about a number of farcical and horrific run-ins he had with Healy and other senior party members. He had particular contempt for Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, whom he feels Healy indulged and pampered because they were famous actors. (Healy once bollocked Norman for praising non-member Lynne Redgrave’s acting ability over her sister Vanessa’s!) Healy shouted at Norman for complaining about Corin cutting in front of print workers in a queue. Norman once was rung up by one of Healy’s assistants and asked to buy the great man some Jaffa Cakes at 3 am. Failure to complete such tasks were signs of revolutionary weakness.
Norman became part of the group in the WRP leadership that denounced and expelled Healy in the mid-1980s. He says that, once he found out about the true nature of what Healy was up to, he acted. Others have argued that earlier suspicions should have been acted upon.
Norman left the rump WRP and moved back to Leeds. Outside the horrendous atmosphere of the WRP he thrived; he married and threw himself into organising tenants’ struggles. He wasn’t in a group, but still regarded himself as a revolutionary socialist.
Norman Harding’s life begs a question though. Why did he stay in a central position in the WRP so long if he knew Healy was a deluded bully and the political direction of the party was disastrous? It is also unclear if he moved away from all of the Healyite orthodoxies.
Norman Harding’s life reminds us that even the most committed revolutionaries cannot separate their campaigning activity from the fight for healthy democratic organisations.