Interview with Cathy – Treasurer and Secretary of Red Action 1981 to 1986
Can you tell me how you came to join Red Action?
I went along to an event in autumn 1981, they were discussing the paper [Red Action] and its layout. The meeting was in Islington or Camden.
I was just seventeen. I came from a Labour Party background, an Islington Labour Party background. A very large contingent of the local Labour Party was Irish. I was the same time as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. There was a real problem with the mainland bombing campaign – but on almost everything else both sides of the local Labour Party would have loathed Paisley, bought Easter lilies.
It was really odd for me that people who were completely supportive of Ireland knew everything that was going on, the military actions, the sectarian bombing campaigns, couldn’t understand why other people were rioting: the black people in Brixton for example. Red Action got it.
Red Action weren’t just anti-racists were they; they were also anti-fascists?
The fascists were around. These were horrible places – Chapel Market, Roman Road. If I didn’t feel comfortable there, there was no chance that a black person would feel comfortable. We had to confront the fascists.
I’d started going to gigs. Still to this day the scariest gig I ever went to was Madness at Camden. There were people giving fascist salutes. It was the first gig I’d ever been to, and the band did nothing to challenge it. That wasn’t the only time saw racism at gigs, you’d hear people sounding off about black musicians all the time.
Red Action was a small group, we had a few key strands of activity: Ireland, anti-fascism including music, feminism after the closure of Women’s Voice, Right to Work. They were all equal. You could take people from one kind of activity to another, so building workers would come to Irish marches and anti-fascist pickets. It was the same with everything we did.
Many of the founder members had been at the SWP?
The expulsions were still being talked about, the closure of Women’s Voice was still being talked about. People were negotiating with themselves about what they needed to keep and what was possible to keep.
Could you talk about Women’s Voice and how that was kept going in Red Action?
The women who came into Red Action, R-, G-, for them the closure of Women’s Voice was as important as the closing down of the anti-fascist squads.
We organized our own trips to Ireland. We organized Irish women on speaking tours in England. We spoke and organized sessions at Red Action’s summer school.
Many of the group’s leading members were women. If you read early copies of Red Action, a very high proportion of them were written by women and addressed women’s issues.
The people central to me personally being involved were women. When other people around the country contacted us to ask if they could set up branches, as a minimum we always sent two women.
The business meetings were always set up to have something from outside, an address from a solidarity campaign or an industrial speaker, and it was striking how often the speakers we invited were women.
I appreciate these days people often think Red Action had a macho culture but it really didn’t feel like that at the time. Almost all the feminist theory I read I got from comrades in the Red Action – I didn’t get that from the Labour Party!
There were other generations within Red Action as well, weren’t there?
Although the SWP lost interest in music after 1981, it seemed that there was still a left and anti-fascist music scene. Some of Red Action’s first members, J- and Y-, were people who’d come from Rock Against Racism in West London. They were still putting on gigs.
And they weren’t the only ones, the scene renewed itself and more people were around Red Action later as a result – we had a venue in North Kensington and put on benefits for Red Action, for Ireland, for local campaigns in Hammersmith. By 1985 we were using that to raise money for the miners.
When the New Cross fire happened, we had a group in South London and a member called C-. He was very involved in the local squatters’ scene. We went to pickets, we raised money for the political campaign. There was a system of house parties in south London and we tried to turn it into a movement of support for the families.
Red Action took on more and more of a security role: for Remembrance Day marches and other Irish events, for the Manchester Martyr’s march. The fascists were attacking the events – like they attacked the black families in South London – and it seemed natural that we were more and more playing that role.
How long did it take the group to get over leaving the SWP?
Not more than six months – I reckon I was a member from autumn 1981 – it was over by the time I met the group. Their identity was already set. This wasn’t the SWP any more, we were Red Action.
The only lingering undercurrent in people’s memories from the SWP was a real objection, a feral defensiveness to being investigated. We really, really, didn’t want to be caught up with panels or anything that reminded us of the SWP expulsions.
When you meet Red Action members, you pick up this sense of working-class pride. People saw themselves as part of the working class, and felt their group was much more representative than the rest of the British left.
That’s right. For me, the fascists were on my street. For other members of Red Action, the fascists were in the same football grounds as them. We always wanted to insist, we’re just as representative of the areas we come from as the fascists.
At different times, different people came to the fore. In 1981-2, there were other people who joined, and they had previously been involved in movements like the Right to Work marches. That was quite a lot of people who had come to live in London and been on the marches. They had come to London after that, looking for work, and we shared squats. There were even people – for example from Cumbernauld – who came down and went to our meetings, even while they kept up their membership of the SWP.
I think people like that were round Red Action and were attracted to the group because of the way we put forward a positive model of being both working class and involved in the left.
In this period, was Red Action growing?
As late as 1984, there were still only two branches in London and Manchester. Although we travelled to Liverpool and maybe three or four other places, where people were starting up groups. We had discussions, should we let them be called Red Action? Do they just sign them saying they believe three or four basic ideas and we let them get on with it? We very deliberately preferred the looser model.
Were you still a member in 1985 when Anti-Fascist Action was launched?
Yes, the initiative came from outside, and we liked the idea of Anti-Fascist Action as something much looser we could engage with. Red Action was involved in organising it, and there was a big fear at the conference that Red Action wanted to take it over, but that wasn’t the plan at all.
We thought AFA should just set up its steering group and have elections for positions. But then there was a very intense discussions, saying that if there were elections we could fill every place with Red Action.
There was a fear of us, because we were the most organized, that we would take it over. There was also a fear that we wouldn’t give enough credence to other kinds of anti-racist action.
But surely the name Anti-Fascist Action meant from the start prioritising anti-fascism over other kinds of anti-racism?
My memory is that there was a composited motion that would keep the AFA name short and specific, but the price of that was that every group would be represented proportionately, except for Red Action.
Red Action start as an Marxists, but you increasingly work with other anti-fascists, including anarchists?
Red Action was quite an open group. For us, it was quite easy dealing with different groups. Almost all of them – having Class War around was a nightmare. If there was a group of people who were going to cause everything to go wrong it was Class War, but we never saw the whole anarchist movement as one thing.
From 1981, we’d been involved in campaigns around all sorts of different groups of workers – often building workers but not only building workers. When 1984-5 happened, almost everyone in Red Action was split into miners’s support groups. It’s not something we planned – they were there. We met and got to know people, who then got worked with group including in anti-fascist work.
Direct Acton Movement were the first people who met us and jelled. We did lots and lots of joint things together: miners’ gigs, industrial stuff – not just the miners, but for blacklisted building workers on the lump. There was a committee of workers who came together in support of Laings workers who’d been blacklisted in the British Library. We spent a number of months over a cold winter successfully picketing the Euston site against their use of subcontractors and lump labour.
DAM were still working with us through Wapping, and afterwards.
But it wasn’t always easy. We were coming more and more into conflict with the law, fighting court cases, keeping people out of jail. Our people were being arrested through all the disputes in London, during the miners, during Wapping. An awful lot of work was spent fighting criminal cases. This involved people who were used to it – people who had been around Red Action for a while – as well as people who’d never been in this situation before. It felt to me as if I almost became a professional witness. That was very draining – both politically and personally.
When do you stop being Treasurer?
I couldn’t swear to it but something like summer-autumn 1986
Tell me about the AFA conference in 1987
It was the first really bad conference we’d ever organized. We were accused of racism as a group, and then people were told to investigate us. They did it really badly, all they did was confirm our fear of being investigated. People behaved as if the fact of accusations was proof of guilt.
The core of the allegation was that a black vote counter in Bradford had been abused, with monkey noises and all sorts. It was a very horrible accusation, it was also completely untrue. I had been right there at all times – nothing remotely like that happened. Someone did piss him off by making him count three times. But that was me. Three, four months, later someone from AFA turned up to take a statement. They didn’t try to speak to me or acknowledge me other than as a house guest of the person they were talking to. It was very obviously a set-up.
Were you involved in anti-fascist protests after you left Red Action?
I was at Welling in 1993. By then, I was quite distant from Red Action. I came to the protest through work, and through younger people in the Newham Monitoring Project. I think one of the things that was missing from Red Action was any number of non-white people.
Red Action worked quite a lot with other non-white groups, but, as a group it was oddly white. That was linked to people’s ideas. We thought we had the problem of racism, in our communities so it’s up to us to fix it.
Red Action was good while it lasted. If it’s needed again, then something will be created. Maybe that’s lesson – that when anti-fascism is needed, it’s possible to do it.