December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1981 riots blamed on left-wing agitators

2 min read
During the 1981 riots there were attempts by the media and politicians to blame left-wing agitators for the violence that erupted in UK cities

During the 1981 riots, some sections of the media and politicians pointed an accusing finger at alleged left-wing agitators as organisers of the disturbances.

Instead of the violence being a spontaneous reaction to either racism or rising youth unemployment, it was orchestrated by shadowy left-wing or anarchist figures bent on fomenting rebellion.

The evidence for this was shaky to non-existent. Even the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, writing at the time, blamed TV while mocking the Socialist Workers Party as it struggled to keep up with events. Whitehouse at least understood that like the police and government, much of the left-wing had been caught off guard by the 1981 riots.

There was also an uneasy relationship between left-wing groups and organisations claiming that they were the true representatives of the community. So, after the Bristol riot in 1980, there was a surprising degree of hostility between community groups and the trade union movement when a Labour Party supported inquiry was launched into the causes.

DISCOVER: Left-wing badges from the 1980s

Ken Livingstone was the left-wing leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) at the time – not mayor, that came much later. After the Brixton riot, he addressed an Anti-Nazi League (ANL) meeting in the area. This was seized on by the tabloid press as an endorsement of the riots. It wasn’t. His speech, like most from the Labour Party, emphasised joblessness and a breakdown in police-community relations as the underlying causes of what had happened.

In Brixton, the Militant group – a Marxist faction in the Labour Party that I supported at the time – set up a defence campaign. But far from embracing the riots, most orthodox Marxists viewed this explosion of inchoate anger as understandable but not the way forward. However, that didn’t stop the tabloids attempting to implicate Militant as you can see in the image below.

Militant accused of involvement in riots

Leave a Reply