England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Councils that dared to fight: Liverpool 1983-1987

By Cormac Kelly, Socialist Alternative West Yorkshire

In the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, the Tories were, as now, demanding that all local councils carry out cuts, privatise services and raise rates (now council tax) as central government grants were reduced.

But Liverpool was different. Whereas across the country Labour councils were capitulating to the Tories, Liverpool councillors refused to carry out the cuts demanded. Supporters of the Militant tendency – one of our predecessor organisations – were only ever a minority among the Labour group but they had the political programme and the determination to fight which drew other lefts behind the campaign.

Homes and jobs

In 1983, the incoming Labour council immediately launched an ambitious programme to build 5,000 new homes. This action created 12,000 new jobs in the building industry. Council staff’s minimum wages were raised to £400 a week benefitting 4,000 of the lowest paid workers.The working week was cut from 39 hours to 35 without loss of pay. The council’s trade unions, a key part of the struggle, were given an unprecedented degree of control, including the right to nominate half the candidates for new jobs.

On budget day, 29 March 1984, a one-day general strike involving 50,000 marching to the City Hall was held in a show of mass support for the council. Thatcher was forced to back down. The city council had succeeded in securing £30m from the government.

Witch-hunt

Instead of congratulating Liverpool, Labour leader Neil Kinnock launched an offensive against the councillors and the left of the Labour Party. The party organisation was closed down and then restarted under a police regime. Supporters of Militant were barred from standing as candidates, subjected to an unprecedented campaign of slander, and expelled.

The government changed tack and sent in the district auditor who found no irregularities, but claimed the council had wastefully lost £106,000 in interest on bank deposits. Yet the Tories had stolen millions from the Liverpool working class! 47 democratically elected Labour councillors were removed from office.

The councillors appealed and raised £650,000 from the labour movement in order to pay legal fees. The fight went all the way to the unelected House of Lords and their judges who declared the councillors were unfit for office. Many of the 47 surcharged (fined) and dismissed ex-councillors faced being victimised, losing their jobs and even homes.

Tony Mulhearn, a Militant supporter and Deputy Leader of the council, said: “Liverpool showed how Marxists can link up directly with working-class people on a clear set of socialist principles.”

In Liverpool the council never lost an election when in control and achieved the highest Labour vote since 1945, despite the city’s population having slumped from 700,000 to 450,000. The 47 councillors were never defeated in elections but only ever removed by the capitalist courts.

Lessons of Liverpool

The programme, strategy and tactics of Liverpool Council between 1983-1987 were guided by Marxists. For a socialist council to be victorious you have to campaign, mobilise and win support amongst trade unionists and the wider working class.

Equally important is a fighting programme which appeals to and is relevant to people’s lives and based on their needs. The councillors implemented the policies they campaigned on and a mass movement was mobilised based on the trade unions to face down government attacks.

Read more on the socialist council in Liverpool in the 1980s here

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