Julie Waterson: Inspirational socialist and political activist


Julie Waterson, who has died after a long and painful fight against cancer, was an outstanding representative of a generation of fine and dedicated activists who became revolutionary socialists in the late 1970s. Inspired by the game-changing impact of 1968, which brought together a strong anti-Stalinism with a revived workers' movement across Europe, she quickly became a resolute and utterly committed fighter for her class.

Born into a working class family in Bathgate outside Edinburgh, Waterson joined the Socialist Workers Party at Paisley College of Technology in 1978, remaining a central and active member throughout her full life. She took this first step during the dog days of Jim Callaghan's faltering Labour government which, following the IMF cuts of 1976, was mounting attacks on workers' living standards unprecedented since the Second World War.

This gave rise to the threat of the National Front breaking into the mainstream of British politics. It was therefore no surprise that these became the twin themes of the rest of Waterson's life, underpinned by an energetic and enthusiastic embrace of the Trotskyist revolutionary tradition. She helped organise a coach to the first great Anti Nazi League Carnival, in 1978. In 1993, against the background of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, she led the opposition to the British National Party, which had just had a councillor elected in London's East End.

Their eventual defeat was achieved by entering areas such as the isle of Dogs which were allegedly no-go areas to anti-racists. This approach was typical of Waterson's courage and political leadership, and crucially helped establish an important precedent for the future, which was repeated in the successful unseating of the BNP in Barking in 2010.

It was in the early 1990s that Waterson's tireless organisational skills, matched by an acute political understanding, were put to a searching test with the relaunch of the Anti Nazi League and the 60,00 strong unity demonstration – an astonishing number for this kind of demonstration at the time – against the BNP HQ in Welling. Waterson was the central figure in both these developments and had her head cracked open by a police truncheon for her efforts. She appeared on national television in a bloodstained white denim jacket to justify the objectives of the demonstration and to condemn the unwarranted behaviour of the police. This demonstration, and the huge ANL Carnival in Brockwell Park the following year, of which Waterson was the main organiser, were testaments to her ability to draw together the diverse strands of opposition into a highly effective united front against the Nazis.

The other strand to Waterson's political life was an unswerving commitment to the strikes and struggles of workers and the oppressed, in Britain and around the world. As a young SWP organiser she played an active part in the Lee Jeans strike of low-paid women workers in 1981. This was a role she repeated with energy and commitment in many subsequent industrial disputes, most notably at the Timex factory in Dundee and in the bitter-fought steel, coal and print disputes of the 1980s and numerous subsequent public-sector strikes.

As an industrial organiser for the SWP she was always aware of the wider political context and was a tireless campaigner for women's rights, and against racism and war, whether in the Falklands, Iraq or Afghanistan, and she played a leading role in winning support for such fundamental issues in the workers' movement. This approach was informed by her deep theoretical understanding of the socialist tradition and the need to organise to overthrow the capitalist order. She was an active participant in the debates of the women's movement, anxious to establish common cause with feminists of different persuasions linked to a socialist strategy based on class. She visited Greece and South Africa to help extend the influence of socialist organisations in those countries.

In the course of her hectic life Waterson gained an exceptionally wide circle of friends This was as a result of her generous personality, a character of great sympathy and understanding in both the large and small things of life, and her boundless energy mixed with an infectious wit and sometimes outrageous repartee.

As it became clear that the cancer afflicting her could no longer be contained, the closest of her friends and her loving and supportive family spared no effort to ease her final months, which she typically bore with great bravery, honesty and spirit. Many now feel an irreplaceable sense of loss which will be expressed both in mourning her death and renewing, as Trotsky once wrote, a commitment "to cleanse the world of all evil, oppression and violence for all humankind to enjoy life to the full."

Paul Holborow

Julie Waterson, political activist: born Bathgate 12 June 1958; died 16 November 2012.

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