By Andy Ford, former Militant activist
Forty years ago, Liverpool elected a socialist city council. The councillors and the Liverpool labour movement conducted an epic battle against Margaret Thatcher, in which they were undefeated, until betrayed by Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the right-wing union leaders. But their legacy lives on today in the houses they built, the parks they opened, and the defiant spirit of the city’s people.
In this article, a Militant activist and participant in the struggle recounts the experiences of this period, and its lessons for socialists today.
Liverpool grew as the gateway to the British Empire. As the Empire grew, so did the city, with the world’s first commercial wet dock in 1710. Liverpool’s merchants prospered off the back of trade in cotton for Lancashire’s mills, manufactures for the colonies and of course, infamously, the slave trade. But while the merchants prospered, the city’s workers did not. There was huge inequality, with Irish immigrant workers at the bottom of the heap.
The post-war boom saw full employment and the right wing in control of the Labour Party. The Labour Party had its main base amongst the Catholic community, with many Protestants supporting the ‘Protestant Party’, which was based on the sectarian Orange Order. Based on this sectarian division, the Conservative and (Unionist) Party controlled Liverpool City Council until 1964. However the city has a rich history of working class struggle – especially of dock and transport workers.
Militant – the organisation which Socialist Alternative traces its history back to – had a long history. Our main strategy in those years was to work within the Labour Party, to patiently build a Marxist tendency, particularly around its youth wing, the Young Socialists. This was because, regardless of the rotten right-wing approach of many of its leaders, it did at that time contain in its the biggest bulk of organised workers, who could be won to a genuine socialist perspective. We took on the reformist approach of the party leadership and became the biggest fear of the capitalist establishment.
To begin with, they had a base in only one constituency – Liverpool Walton. They built a flourishing youth section around fighting socialist policies, and reached out to young people in the other constituencies. They ran political study groups, strike solidarity, and social events. The Marxists began to build support in the unions and the Liverpool Trades Council.
When the Conservatives passed the Housing Finance Act in 1972, which hiked rents and reduced funding for council housing, the Trades Council headed the resistance, arguing for the Labour councillors to follow the same route as Clay Cross Council in Derbyshire and refuse to implement the Act. At that point, they could not win a majority for this. But patient and consistent work continued. Young trade unionists were directed into the Labour Party, where they joined the campaign for a socialist programme against the reformist leadership of the party.
In 1974, a Labour government was elected with high hopes. Shadow Chancellor Denis Healy famously promised to “make the pips squeak” of the rich with taxation. Ultimately, however, it ended in accepting capitalist measures dictated by the IMF. The result was mass anger at Labour, resulting in a strike wave now remembered as the “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-79. Militant led the opposition to the betrayal by the Labour leaders and built support in the unions and Labour Party as a result, including following the fire brigade strike of 1977-78. The betrayal by the Labour leaders paved the way for the reactionary Margaret Thatcher government.
The recession of 1979, and its deliberate intensification by Thatcher, decimated Liverpool’s industries. One factory after another closed down and the economy virtually collapsed. Workers were not going to simply take this and quietly accept it. They reacted. Many began to join the Labour Party, in order to support the programme of class struggle worked out by Militant.
In 1981, the Toxteth Riots took place. This was an uprising of the poorest and most downtrodden of Liverpool’s working class. Toxteth, where the black population lived, still had many features of a ghetto up to the 1980s, with unchecked police brutality, employment outside the area virtually impossible to find. Colour bars operated in many city centre bars, pubs and hotels. As a result the riot was ferocious. To date, Toxteth is the only place in the UK outside Northern Ireland where the police have used tear gas against unarmed civilians.
Marxism builds support, and wins
By 1982 Militant had achieved influence, but not control, in the Liverpool Labour Party. This was not as a sort of ‘takeover’ as claimed by pro-capitalist politicians and journalists, but through its fighting track record and political clarity. The Liberals fought that year’s local elections with a slogan of “Marxists Out – Liberals In”, but all they achieved was to lose the election, and create a broad interest in the ideas of Marxism. Thousands asked themselves, “Who are these ‘Marxists’?”
After years of patient work, the Labour Party was solidly on the left, with three Militant members selected for parliamentary seats and a leading influence in the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) which was chaired by Militant supporter Tony Mulhearn. In 1983, Labour took control of Liverpool Council. Marxist Terry Fields of the Fire Brigades Union was elected as the MP for Broadgreen as a “workers’ MP on a workers’ wage”.
What were workers and trade unionists to do, faced with a city in economic ruin? The answer was, to stick to the programme worked out in the democratic debates at the DLP. This included a demand for new houses – but not the tower block monstrosities built by the Labour right wing! Every house to “have a garden front and back” was a policy won by workers at the DLP. No cuts in jobs at the council was a policy won by trade unionists. And no rent rises was a policy won by working-class tenants.
The councillors were mandated to stick to these points. Anyone who did not agree could step down, or be deselected as a councillor by the DLP. In fact, six councillors, (known as the “scabby six”) did vote with the Tories and Liberals for cuts and redundancies, and were unceremoniously dumped by the Liverpool Labour Party.
The scene was set for confrontation with Thatcher. The clear class politics adopted by the Labour Party due to the influence of Militant led to an increase in the Labour vote from 54,780 in 1982 to 76,176 the following year – an increase of 39%. Meanwhile, the Tory vote collapsed. If we ever met a Tory voter while out canvassing, it was a rarity – a subject of comment and wonderment. In the May 1984 elections, the Labour vote again increased, and seven more comrades were elected. The council demanded more money for the city. The Tory minister, Patrick Jenkin, refused. There was open discussion about the Tories sending in unelected commissioners to take over from the council and run Liverpool on behalf of the Thatcher government.
But the Tories couldn’t do it, because of the mass movement that had been built. The Liverpool Labour Party had thousands of members, full support (at that stage) from the local unions, and a Marxist leadership grouped around Tony Mulhearn and the DLP. The ruling class were powerless and eventually authorised a special financial settlement for Liverpool, worth £21 million.
5,000 houses were built, leisure centres opened, parks refurbished, apprentices taken on, and trade unions given exemplary facility time. It was a huge victory.
This victory came due in part to the miners’ strike which had started three months earlier. Thatcher knew she couldn’t fight on two fronts and decided to concentrate on the miners. Some left critics — notably the Socialist Workers’ Party who called it a “sell out” — attacked us for reaching a deal. This was never the attitude of the miners themselves, who saw our victory as a tremendous morale boost. After all, we’d proven that Thatcher could be beaten if the working class had a determined leadership and the right program and tactics.
Having won significant concessions, it would have been almost impossible for us to simply reject the government’s offer and carry on the struggle. In that case, workers in Liverpool would begin to suspect the Tory propaganda was true, i.e. that Militant had a hidden agenda: confrontation at any price.
Liverpool’s victory had embarrassed the reformist left – the likes of David Blunkett (Sheffield Council), Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell (Greater London Council). They had talked a good fight, only to scatter at the first whiff of grapeshot.
Now they promised to join Liverpool in a national campaign to win fair funding for local authorities. But they were unwilling to set a ‘deficit budget’ as Liverpool had the previous year. Instead, the agreed tactic was to delay setting a budget, which at that time was not actually illegal. After debate, the DLP agreed to go along with the reformists’ tactic. But the delayed budget allowed the Tories to, in their words, “let them stew”. The money was running out, and no-one knew what would happen. In Liverpool, we built a mass working class campaign, while the reformists did not. We had big conferences of council shop stewards, meetings in the wards, and a demonstration of 50,000 outside the Town Hall.
In the words of Trotsky “Betrayal is inherent in reformism” and sure enough, one after the other, following the advice of the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, the left councils peeled away. They put up the rents, made some redundancies, delayed some purchases, hoped nobody would notice, and fudged their way to a weak settlement with Thatcher. They left Liverpool and Lambeth to their fate.
The DLP had mandated the council for rent and rate rises in line with inflation but no more. The right-wing union leaders began to snipe against Liverpool. The ruling class could have set a budget for Liverpool using the Attorney General, but they never did. The money was going to run out at some point. The district auditor surcharged (fined) the 49 individual councillors in the amount of £106,000 and banned them from office. The councillors appealed.
On the brink: September 1985
Money was due to run out in autumn. There was an idea to use capital funds to pay wages, but then no house building would be possible. A tactic of redundancy notices was proposed in the DLP, and after some debate it was agreed and implemented. The idea was to issue redundancy notices which would have helped secure more funds for council spending, and to pay wages right up to the end and then withdraw the redundancy notices so that no -one would lose their job and the council would have the funds to continue implementing left policies.
In the event, however, the workforce did not understand or support the tactic of redundancy notices, they were withdrawn, and no-one lost their job. But the damage had been done. The right-wing union leaders began to get an echo with their attacks on the DLP.
All that was left was a strike of the council workers in order to demand a restoration of funding from the Tories. Again, there was a lot of talk of troops and commissioners. A vote took place on the strike. In the event, the teachers and office staff, whose unions had a leadership aligned with the Communist Party alongside the right wing, voted No, while the manual workers voted Yes. The overall figure was 7284 for the strike, but 9152 against.
It was decision time. Some, such as the Socialist Workers Party called for the manual workers to picket out the teachers and white collar staff, and attacked the DLP for “Betrayal” when they did not follow this advice. It was a turning point.
And that was the point where Neil Kinnock moved in for the kill. At the 1985 Labour Party conference, he launched a furious attack on Liverpool Council. Kinnock knew the truth about the redundancy notices plan but instead accused the Liverpool councillors of making massive job losses – which is what the right-wing Labour controlled councils were doing, unlike Liverpool! This pack of lies went down well, however, with the corrupt Tory press, the boardrooms, and with the Labour Party right wing. “With that speech”, declared Denis Healy, “Neil has won the next election”. In fact he lost the next election, and the one after that. Some wisdom!
Unfortunately, in this situation with the right-wing union and Labour leaders stacked against them, and with other ‘left’ councils refusing to confront Thatcher head on, the Marxists had no magic wand. On 17 October 1985, someone worked out that the money would run out in 3 weeks. Kinnock organised the Stonefrost Report, which called for cuts and rent rises. The DLP rejected it. But in the end the council had to retreat to a balanced budget, mainly based on capitalisation (using capital funds to cover day-to-day spending such as wages). The DLP accepted this by 694 to 12 after a democratic debate.
Now a huge slander was mounted against Liverpool, the DLP, Militant and individuals such as Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. Militant’s opponents all joined in – newspaper editors and their hired hacks, celebrities, right-wing union leaders and the Stalinists around the Morning Star, and the Labour Co-ordinating Committee. It was a feeding frenzy. The ruling class have no qualms about kicking an opponent when they’re down. In fact, it’s their preferred method of debate.
Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn were expelled from the Labour Party. The DLP was “investigated”. Nothing of significance was found but the Labour Party bureaucracy decided to:
a) Stop the DLP mandating councillors. This removed the right of rank-and-file activists to democratically control elected representatives.
b) Stop the DLP screening candidates, and to in effect allow right-wing candidates to be imposed from above.
c) Limit the union delegations, removing the organised voice of the workers in the council.
d) Ban aggregate meetings
It was political – to break the link between the working class and their representatives.
The soft left, which was mainly Stalinist influenced, refused to mount a fight back and capitulated to the right. The Liverpool City Council had been on the left in 1981, but now moved to support Kinnock. Some in Liverpool betrayed the council and gave evidence to Kinnock’s rigged inquiry. There were false allegations of intimidation.
Almost entirely, this abuse and intimidation actually came from the right. One time, in my ward, Cathy, a young member of the Labour Party asked a councillor if she would donate to Young Socialists’ Summer Camp (known at the time as a centre of Militant influence). “No!” came the snarled reply. This was later reported as Cathy intimidating the councillor. The only physical violence I ever saw in the Liverpool Labour Party was a Labour Party official grabbing a young Militant paper seller in a headlock shouting “This is our f***ing meeting”.
As mentioned previously, the Marxist councillors were surcharged by the state. In response, we appealed it. The fine of £106,000 eventually reached the High Court in January 1986. We were never under the impression that the judges would be neutral. As Militant consistently explained, the role of the courts under capitalism was, in the last instance, to be part of the capitalist state, and would when push comes to shove defend the capitalist politicians over the workers. We were right; the hearing was totally biased.
The appeal ended up at the House of Lords in 1987. With legal costs, it amounted to £500,000. When the final appeal was lost, the councillors were undemocratically removed from office, and left with a huge debt that they were individually liable for. We looked after them. Thousands of youth and workers took out direct debits, and the surcharge and legal costs were paid. The campaign for the Liverpool 47 (two councillors sadly died during these events) is still a proud banner in the city and the wider movement.
In May 1987, new councillors were elected, with a left majority and many Militant comrades. To try and wipe out the last remnants of Marxism in the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock had to find reinforcements. He quickly found his man in Peter Kilfoyle – a witch hunter for the right – reportedly all the way from Australia. Once in power as the main bureaucrat in the Liverpool Labour Party, he inquired into, undermined and tried to destroy the influence of Militant and the left. It could not be done by democratic means.
The soft left took the leadership of the local Labour Party, and tried to balance between left and right, only themselves to be subjected to a coup and replaced by Kilfoyle’s people. There was a minority of 29 left councillors, led by people like Lesley Mahmoud, Cathy Wilson and Sue Hogan who held the line against rent rises, cuts and redundancies, in the most difficult circumstances. They were up against Kilfoyle, Kinnock, right-wing union leaders, and the Liverpool Echo. They ended up being thrown off all the committees, excluded from the Labour Party, and finally expelled. In the end, the Labour Party was destroyed by expulsions and corruption, and the city went to the Liberal Democrats for 15 years.
The Liverpool struggle is still important. It shows, in practice and not words, how a small group of Marxists, with clear ideas and a worked out programme can win mass support. Militant grew from a dozen to an organised grouping of around a thousand in the city, over the period. Behind that thousand stood practically the whole working class of the city.
As Liverpool showed, once that mass support has been won, it is very difficult for the ruling class to deal with. In Liverpool, they had to rely on the willing help of the reformist leaders, who sought to strangle Liverpool before it began to affect their careers and positions.
The whole establishment, including the British secret services were involved in the attempts to destroy Militant, as was well documented in subsequent TV documentaries and in Tony Benn’s diaries. It shows how seriously the ruling class took the whole situation, but they could only succeed with the help of the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders.
But the valiant battle of the Liverpool councillors, Militant and working class remains on record, highlighting both what can be achieved if workers have a mass political organisation and a Marxist leadership, but also the lengths the capitalist establishment is prepared to go to in order to prevent even modest gains for working class people under capitalism.