Chapter 1 – Roots

In the 1980s the city of Liverpool has become synonymous with “militancy”. This is recognized not just in Britain, but also internationally. The Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was greeted with chants of “Liverpool! Liverpool! Liverpool!” by demonstrating students in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1984. And they were not referring to the famous football team!

The banner of the labor movement which was held by Glasgow – “Red Clydeside” – in the aftermath of the First World War and during the 1920s has now passed, for the time being, to Liverpool. Capitalist commentators seek an explanation for the Liverpool phenomenon by delving into the mysterious “character” of the city and the Merseyside area. But this cannot explain the titanic struggles with the Tory government between 1983 and 1987, which have marked out Liverpool as something special. Nor has Liverpool “declared political UDI”, as shallow capitalist commentators have suggested.

Nevertheless, all cities have special characteristics. Liverpool is no exception. Its geographical position, which marked it out in the past as one of Britain’s most important sea ports, shaped its complex economic and social history, thereby molding the character of the area. The city was transformed from a sleepy village nestling on the banks of the Mersey, with a population of less than 1000 in the late seventeenth century, into a bustling port, with a population of 78,000 by 1801. In the next 40 years there was a further threefold increase.

This transformation had been wrought by the slave trade. The powerful Liverpool capitalists made their fortunes through the inhuman trade in black skins. PJ Waller, writing in Democracy and Sectarianism, a Political and Social History of Liverpool, pointed out that by 1840 “Liverpool contained sixteen docks. By 1900 forty Mersey docks covered 1600 acres, with 35.5 miles of lineal quay space… The docks and warehouses seemed as monumental as the pyramids.” The labor which built these modern pyramids and worked them was supplied from the wave of immigrants, primarily Irish, but also Welsh and Scots who flooded into the city. This racial and social mix earned the port the title of “the Marseilles of England”.

The terrible Irish famine of the 1840s provided the impetus for the human flood of immigrants which swept into Liverpool. Some 500,000 Irish entered Liverpool before July 1848. Many re-emigrated, but over 105,000 remained. The bourgeois complained, “This was not one of the people of all classes, but of the poor.” It is the rapid transformation of the living conditions of the masses which provides the fertile soil in which radical and revolutionary ideas take root. The uprooting of the rural population and the drawing of them into towns and the maelstrom of industry furnished the base for the growth of revolutionary Chartism in the early labor movement. Mostly driven from the land by hunger, the Irish immigrants transferred their hatred of the English landlords to the Liverpool capitalists. The capitalists feared, not without justification, that “rootless Irishmen would turn into revolutionary Chartists”.

Chartism in Liverpool, however, was a tender plant. While Chartists meeting in other manufacturing towns witnessed crowds of 200,000 and 300,000, a meeting in Liverpool’s Queens Square in June 1839 drew no more than 15,000. Nevertheless, one of the leading Chartist orators, William Jones, was a native of the city. The Liverpool Chartists called the city ” this seat of corruption” after the 1830 General Election. Bribes were freely offered at £5 a vote and £80,000 was spent in securing votes by bribes.

Hostility to the English was carried on into second and third generation Liverpool Irish. They considered themselves as more “Irish” than English. This undoubtedly was a factor in fashioning the fiery temperament of the Liverpool labor movement. Leon Trotsky commented that running through the veins of the British working class is not a little Scottish, Irish and Welsh blood, which has contributed revolutionary temper and quite a few of its leaders.

The Liverpool capitalists adopted the methods of “divide and rule”, already tried and tested in Ireland. The ruling class was to employ this weapon in the city for over 100 years. Indeed, the fumes of sectarian poison were to be dissipated only in the period after 1945. The idea was also cultivated that “Irishmen depressed wages.” The slums according to one commentator, bred a “congenital urge to fight” which usually took the form of a battle between “green and orange” rather than against the capitalists. The casual nature of dock work, making it difficult for the young trade unionists to organize, reinforced this. The capitalists played off one group against another. Competition for jobs on the docks resulted in a drop of real wages for many of the Merseyside working class between 1850 and 1875, despite the rapid expansion of capitalism in that period.

Early Struggles

Long before this, however, Liverpool experienced strikes and violent clashes between labor and capital. The first recorded strike in the city was by shoemakers in 1756. A far more serious clash developed between the ship-owners and sailors in 1775. The strikers, carrying a red flag and with red ribbons in their bonnets, stormed the Exchange, which doubled as the Town Hall, after the employers” armed guards had fired on an unarmed crowd. In 1833, a strike of building workers took place in Liverpool and Birkenhead from April until October, when they were forced back to work in defeat.

The ebb of the revolutionary wave which swept Europe in 1848 coincided with a long economic revival of capitalism. The ten year cycle of capitalism, analyzed and described by Marx, resulted in periodic crises. But the basic trend in this epoch was for a colossal development of the productive forces. Britain’s monopoly of the world market allowed it to give certain concessions to a layer of the working class, creating what Engels called “the aristocracy of Labour”. Trade unionism in the main was restricted to the skilled trades, who jealously guarded their position and privileges.

The National Union of Elementary Teachers was founded in Liverpool in 1870. This became the National Union of Teachers in 1889. The forerunner of the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) grew out of the Liverpool Government Officers Guild, founded in 1896. NALGO was established in 1905. These organizations began as “professional associations”. The founder of NALGO was Principal Agent of the Conservative Party between 1924 and 1927! It is one of the ironies of history that Derek Hatton, scourge of the Thatcher government, first built support in NALGO eighty years after it was established by a Tory!

The loss of English imperialism’s monopoly of world trade, and the challenge posed to it by emerging German imperialism, compelled the British capitalists to attack the conditions of the working class. The privations of the unemployed, the low paid and unskilled workers led to riotous demonstrations in London in the mid-1880s. These privations also “turned Liverpool Dockers from hungry men into angry men”.

The Liverpool Trades Council was revived in 1888 to unite “for the protection of Labour”. First set up as the Liverpool Trades Guardian Association in 1848, it had entered into a period of decline about 1960. The 3000 membership of the Trades Council was restricted primarily to the skilled workers: printers, tailors, saddlers, bookbinders, railway workers, gilders, cabinet makers etc. It also proscribed “party or political matters unless bearing upon Labour questions”.

The more politically active workers bypassed the Trades Council. Liverpool’s first “working-class” councilor, JG Taggart, was an Irish nationalist who, together with Thomas Kelly remained the only standard bearer of labor in the council right up to 1905. Nevertheless, the Trades Council increased its membership to more than 10,000 within a year of its revival. But the greatest impulse for union organization came from the lower depths of the proletariat, the unskilled, particularly the despised seafarers and Dockers upon whose labor the wealth of the city had been built.

The spark for this movement had been laid out by the strikes of the Dockers, match girls and other workers in London. The National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) had been founded in Glasgow in 1889. In June and July 1889 strikes of seafarers broke out, followed by the Dockers in February and March 1890. The “new unionism” also searched for a political expression. The NUDL proclaimed in its 1891 Annual Report that:

For the first time in the history of the labor world, distinctions of nationality and religious creed and political party and color of skin were set aside, and the common brotherhood of the workers asserted and vindicated…the utter helplessness of capital without labor.

By 1891 the Trades Council had 121 delegates representing 47 trades and 46,000 members, which made it the largest Trades Council outside London. The Tory leader Forwood warned that “dangerous doctrines were being preached by the new school of trade unionists – the Burns, Mann and Tillett type of demagogue”. There were more than enough causes which sustained and built the unions and the emergent labor movement. Slums and terrible housing were a feature of Liverpool, as with most large cities. Liverpool had first given the world the term “Jerry-building” in the 1880s.

The towering figure of James Larkin, born in Liverpool in 1876, symbolized the rise of the Liverpool labor movement at the beginning of this century. While Larkin became famous for his leadership of the Irish labor movement at a later date, particularly of the titanic 1913 Dublin lockout, he possessed the qualities which the best of the Liverpool workers’ leaders have all shown. Those working-class forces and individuals which did battle with the Tory government between 1983 and 1987 were cast in the same mold.

Tony Mulhearn, Derek Hatton and the supporters of Militant on Merseyside stood on the shoulders of Larkin, but had the immense advantage of a worked-out Marxist program, perspectives and tactics. Larkin evinced those qualities which have given a special quality to the “militancy” of Liverpool. That tradition was continued by others, perhaps not as well known, but who played a crucial role in the local labor movement, keeping the torch of Marxism alight and passing it on to the new generation.

The first steps of the British workers towards independent political representation separate and in opposition to the Liberal Party, found some of its most ardent champions in the city. The first Liverpool branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which included James Larkin among its founder members, was set up in June 1892, six months before the ILP’s first national conference.

The severe worsening of the conditions of the working class nourished the growth of socialism and the labor movement. Unemployment had risen from 2 percent in 1890 to over 7 percent in 1893. At the beginning of the new century the tide began to turn in favor of Labour. Keir Hardie was elected to Parliament. The Labour Representation Committee, linking socialists and trade unionists, was formed in 1900. This in turn laid the foundation for a Parliamentary Labour Party. In the same year, John Morrissey was the first Liverpool socialist to be elected to a public position, that of Public Auditor. Larkin assisted in his campaign bur was destined to play a greater role in the trade-union field.

The 1906 general election was a triumph for the Liberals, but it also brought a significant increase in Labour representation in parliament. Shortly afterwards, the death of the sitting MP for Kirkdale, David MacIver, forced a by-election. Liverpool Labour threw itself energetically behind their candidate, John Hill, secretary of the Boilermakers Union. Some 100 open air meetings were held in Liverpool before polling day, September 27. Nearly twenty Labour MPs appeared, including Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson. The by-election was described as the “biggest fight in Labour’s history”. The Protestant Standard declared that socialism would mean “absolute infidelity, the grossest immoralities”, and – anticipating Enoch Powell – “rivers of human blood”. Labour was defeated, but it put up a credible performance: Hill received 3300 votes to Charles M’Arthur’s 4000.

The events of 1905-6 and particularly the strikes of seafarers and Dockers were the dress rehearsals for 1911, the year of Merseyside’s greatest industrial battle. The strike wave of 1911 represented the emergence of the Merseyside working class as a powerful, combative force.

The period 1910-14 was one of the stormiest in British history. Lenin commented, “the shadow of revolution hung over Britain”. Transport workers, the miners, the mighty movement of the Dublin workers in the 1913 lock out, the movement of the suffragettes, as well as the threat of civil war over the issue of Ireland all convulsed Britain. But it was the strike of the transport workers in 1911, which was ignited by the strikes in Liverpool, which started the movement.

Paradoxically, the spark for this movement came from the revival in industry and the economy in 1911. A similar process in Russia was analyzed by Trotsky at this time. He was the first to point out that it is neither a recession nor an economic upswing which necessarily radicalizes the working class or results in strikes. It is the change from one period to another, argued Trotsky, which furnished the basis for a strike wave or a radicalization of the working class. Thus after a recession, a revival in industry, sometimes a small and partial upswing, can lead to a drop in unemployment and imbue the workers with a greater confidence. This in turn can lead to a movement with the aim of recapturing what was lost in the recession. This was a major factor which gave a mighty push to the workers’ movement in 1911. It combined with the emergence of a new generation of younger workers who were impatient both with the ossified trade-union leadership, and the seemingly impotent Parliamentary Labour Party. This “anti-parliamentarianism” was reflected in the growth of syndicalist ideas and the popularity of leaders like Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

The 1911 Dock Strike

In the decade before 1911, real wages had dropped by 10 percent. The upswing in production and the growth in the profits of the capitalists fueled the opposition of the working class. Together with Ben Tillett, Tom Mann had formed the National Transport Workers Federation, which brought together some 30 bodies into a loose trade-union federation. On May 31 this body called a “monster demonstration” which gathered on the Eastern Plateau by St George’s Hall.

The two seafarers’ unions, the National Union of Ship Stewards, Cooks, Butchers and Bankers and the National Sailors and Firemen’s Union, were shaping up for a battle with the notorious Ship-owners Federation. The seafarers’ main demands were for a conciliation board, a minimum rate of wages and an end to the degrading medical examination by doctors privately appointed by the Ship-owners Federation. The ship-owners rejected the demands of the seafarers. They were confident that there would be no strike. But the crew of the White Star liner, Baltic, when they docked in Liverpool, immediately put in for an increase of £1 a month. This was turned down and all the firemen refused to sign articles for the next voyage. By June 14 500 men of the Baltic, Teutonic and the Empress of Ireland, refused to sign on and the strike began.

Tom Mann arrived in Liverpool and immediately convened a meeting under a banner which proclaimed: “War Declared: Strike for Liberty”. Two to three thousand attended the meeting at Canning Place, addressed by Tom Mann. The Daily Post quoted a trade unionist who said, “It’s like striking one match of a box which can very easily set fire to all the rest.” Prophetic words! This is precisely what happened in the following months. The strike was 100 percent successful.

Strikes spread like wildfire throughout the rest of Britain. The Dockers showed splendid solidarity, refusing to unload a ship, The Painter, which was being worked by blacklegs. On June 26 the dock laborers struck against firms refusing to recognize the seafarers’ union. Action was also being considered in the United States of America and Europe. Non-unionists were drawn in behind the unionized seafarers. In the heat of the battle sectarianism began to be pushed aside. The Dockers were mainly Catholic and the carters were mainly Protestant. The flood of non-unionists into the unions meant a dramatic increase in overall strength. As a result of the struggle, the dock laborers’ union gained 8000 new members during the dispute, the stewards 2500 new members and the sailors and firemen 4500. It was now claimed that 99 percent of Liverpool shipping was sailing under union conditions.

Alarmed by these developments, the government began to prepare for military intervention. Shipping firms had agreed to recognize the union, but a majority of the Dockers rejected the settlement because of the lack of progress on wages. It seemed as though the strike was going to disintegrate. Tom Mann and the strike committee launched a series of mass meetings to explain the issues to the men. The won the argument and there was a general return to work. But there was a dramatic increase in the confidence, cohesion and membership of the unions.

No sooner had the Dockers returned, however, than others began to come out, mill workers, brewery workers in favor of “union ale”, and 250 women at Walton rubber works, all struck in the wake of the dockers’ successful action. Tramway workers were drawn into the campaign for unionization, and wage rises were conceded. But these strikes, important as they were, merely foreshadowed another titanic struggle, which was now about to unfold.

Over 500 porterage staff at the North Dock goods station of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway first threatened strike action over pay and conditions. This was opposed by the executive of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, who ordered that the men take their grievances to the conciliation board. But already bitter from their experience with the conciliation board, 1000 goods porters from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway went on strike on August 5 right along the line of the docks. Their demands were for a 50-hour week (a reduction from 60) and a two shillings a week pay increase for all grades.

The strike wave was spreading far and wide. From the lowest depths of the working class one section after another joined in. But the bourgeois were shaping up for an outright confrontation with the workers. Troops were drafted into the city. Together with the police, they were openly used as strikebreakers. The troops were issued with live ammunition. The strike committee called for a “monster demonstration” for Sunday August 13 on St George’s Plateau.

Forty thousand workers were expected, but in the event 100,000 turned up to listen to 40 speakers on four separate platforms. While militant, the meeting was extremely peaceful. Then a small incident involving a section of the crowd and police was seized on by the massed ranks of the police to launch a vicious assault on the demonstration.

The police charged repeatedly for half an hour. After the crowd was dispersed the area was strewn with broken glass, stones, pieces of timber and other missiles, “and other silent witnesses of the savage spirit in which the warfare had been waged”. A contingent of soldiers from the Warwickshire Regiment appeared on the scene, taking up stations at the north end of the plateau. The Riot Act was read twice. Fighting continued north of Lime Street, where “behind barricades, residents withstood the police for 36 hours”. Commenting on the events of the day Tom Mann said:

This afternoon’s happenings will certainly not cow our men, and whilst we shall keep within the necessary limits, the spirit of genuine fight on recognized lines is immensely stronger now as a result of the dastardly behavior of the police than it was 24 hours ago.

The police brutality on “Bloody Sunday” only served to intensify the anger of the working class. Two days later 3000 workers attacked prison vans containing arrested “rioters” and two men were killed by the police, “one after the sergeant he was attacking shot him in the head”. This further inflamed the workers. Tram cars were wrecked and barricades were erected in parts of the city. Lord Derby forwarded to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, the Lord Mayor’s cry that Westminster should realize that “a revolution was in progress.”

The bourgeois took fright at the developments in Liverpool. The Times (16 August) declared: “Labour agitation gone mad.” The press reported: “Walton jail is full. Shops and public houses were shuttered, but determined looters checked only when the troops assumed the firing position.” The reactionary magazine Porcupine proclaimed “The crimson flag of anarchy was let loose in Liverpool.” Another declared “A nightmare for civilization.” The ship-owners, as expected, locked out the Dockers, affecting 20,000 men.

Before the outbreak of police violence at the demonstration on the Sunday, Tom Mann had warned: “If they [the employers] refuse to take action with a view to an honorable settlement, then we shall declare a general strike for the whole of Liverpool.” The strike committee now prepared to put that threat into practice. Liverpool took on the appearance of a city subject to full-scale military occupation. The cruiser, Antrim, was anchored in the Mersey with its guns trained on the city Center. On the evening of August 14 the strike committee called a strike committee called a general strike.

The funeral of the workers who had been shot, one a Protestant carter, the other a Catholic docker, was an occasion for sectarianism to be swept aside in a display of working-class solidarity. The working class responded magnificently to the strike call. Dockers, sailors and firemen, cooks and stewards, railway workers, coal heavers and tugboatmen, flatmen, canalmen and bargemen, all came out. More than 66,000 workers were on strike.

A situation of virtual dual power existed in Liverpool at this stage. The power of the capitalist state was challenged by the joint strike committee, which issued permits for the transportation of certain goods. Businessmen and tradesmen were approaching the committee, and sometimes, in response, bread was “set free” and hospitals exempted. One Liberal was quoted as saying, “Labour is out of hand for the moment.”

This movement came from below and revealed to one bourgeois commentator the “absolute powerlessness of the trade union leaders to guide their followers [which] is the most unfortunate feature of the struggle.” As a result of the pressure in Liverpool, the right-wing leaders of the four railway unions were forced to come to Liverpool and in effect to ratify the national rail strike that had already broken out.

The capitalists began a recruiting drive for special constables. More significantly, Territorial Army members in Liverpool were forced to surrender their rifles and ammunition, allegedly “for the use of the regular army”. The bourgeois were obviously terrified that the radicalization of the working class would infect even part-time soldiers. Tom Mann, speaking at a mass meeting in Bankfield Street, declared that:

He was not the sort of man to be cowed by the soldiers, even if there were a million of them. A very big percentage of the military, he was genuinely convinced, had hearts that beat in sympathy with the strikers, for they knew that when their period of service was over they would be pitchforked onto the market of labor, to subsist on the same low wages and to suffer the same hardships as the workers who were on strike…a great percentage of the police too, in spite of their dastardly work on Sunday, were, he believed, in sympathy with the men, and he would be the last man to encourage unwarrantable bitterness against the police force (Daily Post 16 August 1911).

Tom Mann was later imprisoned, following the publication of his Open Letter to British Soldiers during the 1912 miners’ strike.

By August 19 200,000 were on strike. The Liverpool employers fulminated against the strikers with words which could be borrowed from the speeches of Thatcher. They particularly denounced “The system known as ‘peaceful picketing’, under which, as carried out, many thousands of our employees who are wishful to work are prevented from doing so by the threats of, and intimidation of strikers.” The radicalization of the masses on the other hand affected even Labour MPs of the day like GM Barnes who declared that: “The only solution of their troubles was to do away with the damnable system of capitalism.”

The Liberal government, faced with the determined mood of the transport workers, rushed in a mediator. He called for both sides to resume work with no dismissals. This meant that the railway company’s secret agreement was finished. The union leaders accepted, but the rank and file accepted only with great reluctance and suspicion. The workers went back on August 22, conscious that they had scored a great victory. The bourgeois, gnashing their teeth, thirsted for revenge. Tory leader Sir William Forwood, in a letter to The Spectator wrote:

In my native city of Liverpool Tom Mann and the strike committee have ruled supreme during the last week. Their orders have been despotic. No cart could move along the streets unless it bore a placard stating that it was “under the auspices of the strike committee” or under a convoy of cavalry and even the presence of an escort has not always prevented an attack from the mob.

Tory leader Chamberlain was also to declare a year later, “We shall never have settled peace until one struggle at least has been fought out to a finish.” The 1911 railway strike had established Liverpool as a bastion for the working class. The ruling class’s fear of the labor movement in the city really dates from this time. The unions were now an immense power and Liverpool was a “hotbed of militancy”.

This tradition was sometimes to sink into the background, particularly in periods of economic upswing, only to return later with even greater force. The 1911 strike inspired workers throughout Britain. In 1912 the miners called a national strike and in 1913 the Dublin lockout won enormous support from the working class throughout Britain. There was a massive increase in union membership from 2.2 million to over 4 million by the outbreak of war in 1914.

In the wake of the strike the Liverpool labor movement turned to the political plane. In 1910-11 Labour’s vote in the municipal elections rose from 4129 to 12,231. It dropped back in the two succeeding years. A vicious slander campaign was conducted by the Tories and Liberals against Labour candidates. In the Breckfield ward, Petrie, the Tory leader, advised women that “if the socialist candidate was elected to imagine their husbands coming home on Saturday, with their free love and no wages”.

Once more sectarianism, in the wake of the heightened conflict in the north of Ireland, was to become an obstacle to the development of the labor movement. Sir Edward Carson, the Conservative and Unionist leader, organized the 100,000 strong “Ulster Volunteer Force” and in 1914 British officers at the Curragh Barracks revolted against any “Home Rule” being implemented by the Liberal Government.

These developments found an echo in Liverpool. The reactionary barrister and MP for Walton, FE Smith, who was later to become a Tory Cabinet Minister, promised Carson that 10,000 Liverpudlians in three ships were ready to join him. Reports indicated that there were also 3000 “Irish Nationalists” who had received military training ready to counter the Ulster Volunteer Force.

With the outbreak of the 1914-18 war class issues were muffled by the roar of cannon and shells, but they broke out with even greater ferocity in the post-war period. The workers linked the carnage of the war, from which there was a profound revulsion, to capitalism. As John Maclean the Scottish socialist put it, the capitalists were “dripping from head to foot” with the blood of the working class.

The Revolutionary Wave of 1917-19

The Russian workers, by breaking with landlordism and capitalism and establishing a workers’ democracy in the revolution of 1917 blazed a trail which others attempted to follow. The German workers attempted to make a revolution, only to find that it was the leaders of their own organizations, the German Social Democrats (SPD) and the Independents (USPD) who were the main obstacle. The Hungarian workers took power for a short period, but were overthrown by a bloody counter revolution.

The reverberations from the Russian Revolution were felt in Liverpool, as in the rest of the country. The young John Braddock, at that stage a fiery left winger and soon to be a founding member of the Communist Party, hailed the revolution: “There had been many revolutions in Russia, but this was the revolution. The workers were in power!” In wave after wave and in one country after another, the masses battered at the foundations of capitalism.

The high-water mark of this revolutionary wave was undoubtedly the year 1919. The onrush of the masses under the impetus of the Russian Revolution was so great that Lenin and Trotsky raised the theoretical possibility that European capitalism could be swept away even before the creation of mass parties armed with a clear program, strategy and tactics. Their hopes were not borne out by the march of events. But even in Britain, not the worst affected country, the bourgeois were terrified by the movement of the working class.

The 1919 Police Strike

One of the most remarkable incidents at this time was the police strike. The very fact that an important arm of the capitalist state could be infected with the spirit of revolt was a reflection of the crisis facing capitalist society. The National Union of Police and Prison Officers was founded in August 1918 to fight for the interests of “workers in uniform”. Many of the members were ex-servicemen and the union found itself pushed rapidly towards the left, gravitating towards the labor movement.

The union was first organized in London and began to demand wage increases and recognition of the union. Under tremendous pressure the government conceded an inquiry. But while this was deliberating, disaffection in the Metropolitan Police worsened when PC Spackman was dismissed for “insubordination”. This triggered off a mood of real hostility to the government, and the union decided to hold a ballot on the issues of strike action, recognition, a pay increase, and reinstatement of all dismissed constables.

On June 6, 1919 the government announced plans to cut across the union by establishing a “police association”. This was incorporated in the police bill published on July 16. While the national Labour Party leaders, led by dockers’ leader and MP Sexton, welcomed the pay rise in the House of Commons they showed only token opposition to the government’s prohibition of policemen belonging to a proper trade union. But on July 31, delegates from the Metropolitan Police Union met to consider their response to the Police Bill. They decided to call a strike from the following day, with a demonstration from Tower Hill to Downing Street.

Many workers in Liverpool had indicated that they would come to the side of the police, which showed their sound proletarian instinct. This was despite the many vivid memories of the beatings and shooting they had suffered at the hands of the police in 1911. The workers, if not their national and local leaders, understood the importance of supporting the police strike as a means of pulling them towards the labor movement.

The strike was most successful in the Liverpool area. The government claimed that only 1056 strikers from a force of 19,000 had come out in the London area. But in Liverpool, out of a force of approximately 2000, 95 percent were in the union. Over 700 came out on the first day of the strike and attended a mass meeting on St George’s Plateau. Some of the police marched to the meeting in military fashion. The Bootle police union claimed that 69 out of 70 officers were out on strike

There was an instinctive rallying of rank and file trade unionists to the police. The Liverpool branch of the Postmen’s Federation telegrammed: “Compliments. Fight the good fight. Civil and citizens rights, with full recognition. With other unions will consider practical sympathy, if necessary.” The Tory Home Secretary, Shortt, denounced the police strike as “an act of mutiny”. The Merseyside police were considered by the national and local authorities as a key Center. At least 2500 troops arrived in Liverpool. Four tanks were stationed at St George’s Plateau, and warships anchored in the Mersey.

The absence of police on duty resulted in what the Post (4 August) described as “an orgy of looting and rioting” over the August Bank Holiday weekend. One rioter was shot. He later died in hospital. Baton charge after baton charge was made in an attempt to end the disturbances, and the dock gates were set on fire. The London Road-Scotland Road area became a “war zone”. The Riot Act was read and according to one account the shops and pubs were plundered to the tune of £150,000. In Birkenhead the Riot Act was also read. A mass meeting of trade unionists in support of the police passed a resolution which stated:

This meeting of Liverpool trade unionists declares common cause with the National Union of Police and Prison Officers and determines in order to give immediate and necessary assistance, that a “down tool” policy to be forthwith declared. All trade unionists in the city and district are, therefore, urged to cease work at once owing to the attack made by the government on trade unionism… That as rioting conferred a pretext for military interference, Liverpool men were asked to act so as not to put their brothers in the force in a false position (Post, 4 August 1919).

The police by themselves could not possible succeed because of the 800,000 ex-servicemen, many now unemployed, who the government were busily recruiting into the force. The success or otherwise of the strike depended upon whether the heavy battalions of the labor movement would come to the support of the police. The local workers’ leaders instinctively gravitated in the direction of supporting the police. But the national leadership of the unions began to distance themselves. On August 6 the National Union of Railwaymen Executive turned down calls for a sympathy strike and urged those members already on strike to return to work. Reluctantly, the Liverpool branches accepted the decision, but demanded that all strikers be reinstated. On the same day, under Sexton’s pressure, the dockers decided not to take any action

The lack of support from the national trade-union leaders weakened the resolve of police in other areas, and sections began to leave the union. The bourgeois, feeling they had the upper hand, completely rejected the possibility of reinstatement. Recognizing that they were being betrayed by the leaders of the labor movement and desperate to retain their jobs in the teeth of the widespread recruitment of blacklegs, branches of the union in Bristol, Chester, Bradford, Nottingham and Salford resigned from the union. Realizing that they had been isolated, many police beat a frantic retreat in a desperate attempt to regain their jobs. Their isolation drove them to the right and led them to beg for help from their “betters”.

A resolution was passed at a meeting of the Liverpool police which declared: “This meeting, representing the major portion of the city police now on strike, have realized the mistake made, and discovered that we were misled, and regret the step we took on August 1, 1919.” It also stated: “we give an undertaking to abandon the Police and Prison Officers’ Union”. Despite this groveling supplication to the Watch Committee, the police were isolated, and most of them never got their jobs back.

The police strike of 1919 indicated the colossal ferment which affected all layers of society after the First World War. The perfidious character of the right-wing trade-union leaders was laid bare. Lloyd George considered that the defeat of the 1919 police strike was “perhaps the turning point in the labor movement”, redirecting it “from Bolshevist and direct actionist causes to legitimate trade unionism”.

Many police strikers were victimized and never reinstated. Nevertheless, three police strikers stood as Labour candidates in Liverpool in the 1919 municipal elections. Two were elected, and Labour as a whole made great progress, with ten gains. This brought the number of Labour councilors up to 20.

But with the ebb of the revolutionary wave, sectarian tendencies reappeared in the following years, particularly with the election of Protestant councilors. Yet Liverpool in the early 1920s was in the grip of recession and unemployment. According to John Braddock: “Roughly one in nine of the population of Liverpool was unemployed. And because a man might – and often – did have seven children, that meant destitution for more than half the 800,000 in the city.”

The continuing mass unemployment in the early 1920s led to the formation of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, with the young Communist Party in the leadership. Demonstrations of 30,000 and 40,000 unemployed marched through Liverpool demanding “Work or Full Maintenance”. When they occupied the Walker Art Gallery in 1921, the police meted out savage beatings – workers’ blood ran down the steps of the gallery. But in general the police were circumspect in their handling of the demonstrations – these unemployed were ex-servicemen who marched in military fashion. Indeed, the police more than once had to request the unemployed to slow down because they had difficulty in keeping in step!

The city council had a crushing Tory majority of 150 to Labour’s 15. Yet so effective and threatening were the demonstrations that Salvidge, the Tory leader, called in John Braddock for negotiations. Braddock describes the almost autocratic power exercised by this representative of the Liverpool capitalists:

Salvidge said: “I want to talk to you about the mess we’ve got into with the unemployed.”
“But you’re not a member of the Board of Guardians,” I reminded him.

He looked at me hard. “Are you going to act your age, Mr. Braddock?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “You’re telling me that you and I can reach an agreement, and that agreement will be carried out by the three boards of guardians?”

“That’s what I’m telling you,” he smiled.

The fact that boards of guardians were separately elected bodies, administering a special law, with their own statutory powers, owing no allegiance to the council, bothered him not a bit. He had the town well sewn up.

“Have you the proposals?” I asked.

“Yes, I have,” he told me. “I’m proposing that the scales paid at the labor exchanges to those entitled to unemployment pay, generally called the dole, shall be paid to all on poor relief.”

I went on: “If you’ll undertake that the three boards of guardians will start paying unemployment scales of relief, in money, I’ll undertake to accept it.”

I went back to the committee and told them, and they said: “That’ll do.”

The government warned Salvidge that he had no authority to do this and that he was breaking the statutory regulations, but he ignored them. He was the boss (Jack and Bessie Braddock, The Braddocks).

There is a striking parallel here between Salvidge’s behavior and that of Tory Minister, Jenkin, when he made concessions to Labour in 1984. In both cases it was “extra-parliamentary” activity which brought the ruling class to heel. The right wing of the Liverpool labor movement who, when necessary, will invoke the image of this “militant” episode.

The 1920s in Liverpool were characterized chiefly by the struggles against unemployment: the unemployed organizations worked with the Trades Council. Up to this time many catholic Liverpool workers supported the Irish Nationalists, who even had an MP in Liverpool for many years. Likewise many protestant workers voted for Conservative and Unionist candidates. After the partition of Ireland in 1921, the Irish Nationalists declined as a force in Liverpool, and in March 1923 Labour elected its first MP in Liverpool, winning a by-election in Edge Hill.

Liverpool in the 1926 General Strike

A council of action had been convened in 1925 in preparation for the confrontation which was expected to develop from the miners’ struggles and between the labor movement and the government. The majority of the Liverpool working class responded magnificently to the call, in May 1926, for a general strike. Of the heavy battalions of the working class only the tramway and the electricity workers failed to come out. Havelock Wilson also refused to bring the seafarers out. The government, now wary of Liverpool’s involvement in any struggle, put two battalions of troops into Liverpool and two battleships arrived in the Mersey. When the national leaders called the general strike off while it was still spreading, the advanced workers, a large minority of the Liverpool Trades Council, condemned the TUC’s abandonment of the miners. Moreover, several hundred workers in the Liverpool flour milling industry who had come out in support of the strike were not reinstated afterwards.

In the aftermath of the general strike trade union membership on Merseyside dropped by a quarter. But the municipal elections that followed the strike saw the representation of Labour on the council increased to 19. This growth was sustained by the terrible distress caused by the unemployment which was endemic in Liverpool even before the onset of the “Hungry Thirties”. The West Derby Board of Guardians was, for instance “overdrawn in its account of current expenses by £650,000 by 1925”. By 1930 the number of unemployed had reached a staggering 72,518 in Liverpool and Bootle. On one famous occasion in 1929 the Garston Exchange had to close when insufficient money had been drawn from the bank to meet the claims.

Despite mass unemployment the labor movement was the rising force in the city. By 1929, “Labour inspired what enthusiasm there was, Margaret Bevan (a Tory councilor) linked their devotion to that of the crusaders: “They are willing to make any sacrifice – week in, week out – for socialism.” These pioneers of the labor movement in Liverpool are separated by a chasm from the present national right-wing leadership of the labor and trade-union movement. The average Labour Party member in Liverpool, and particularly Militant supporters, have the same spirit of self-sacrifice and conviction which motivated the pioneers.

Nor were the upheavals in the Liverpool Labour Party of the 1980s unknown to those who built the labor movement in the city in the 1920s and 1930s. Three councilors in Great George Street and one in Vauxhall, in action like that of the SDP in 1981, split from the Labour Party in the 1930s calling themselves “Democratic Labour”. At the same time, an ILP candidate, Bob Lissyman, one of the victimized leaders of the 1919 police strike, was victorious in a by-election in the Edge Hill ward. This was one indication of the radicalization of the working class that was taking place in the city.

The betrayal of Labour by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, when he split away while Labour Prime Minister and joined with the Liberals and Tories to form the National government, had its repercussions in Liverpool. One Labour MP, Hall Caine, followed MacDonald into supporting the National Government and was accordingly vilified as a “twister and traitor”. In the general election of 1931 Labour lost every Liverpool seat except the Scotland seat in which David Logan MP was to remain entrenched for 40 years.

The 1930s were characterized by a further growth of unemployment and increased misery for tens of thousands. There were 110,000 unemployed in Merseyside in 1931-2. Fully one-third of males were unemployed.

The 1932 Birkenhead Riots

In September 1932 the anger of the unemployed boiled over in riots which erupted in Birkenhead. Bootle and South Wales police were mobilized, but they were held at bay for a period of three days.

The movement spread to Liverpool and another riot broke out. As a result of this demonstration, John Braddock was sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment for allegedly leading it, although other councilors testified that he was elsewhere at the time. He was released from jail after a successful appeal, even the police having to admit they had mistaken him for somebody else.

The slump in the world economy, with a consequential collapse of world trade, had a devastating effect in Liverpool. The port lost an average one percent in trade a year between 1919 and 1939. The complete dependency of the city on the port and its unskilled labor was shown by the fact that only 37 percent of Liverpool workers were engaged in production, compared with the 63 percent national average. The only escape route for many of the thousands of unemployed was the armed services. Yet 50 percent of the 3692 Liverpudlians seeking to join the armed forces in 1935 and about 30 percent of the 6000 who attempted to follow the same route in 1936 failed to meet the medical or physical standards! Moreover, the council provided no help to reduce unemployment; the corporation in fact cut the health and education administration by £5 million in 1932.

The decade of the 1930s ended for Liverpool as it began with demonstrations of the unemployed. Faced with the horrendous 80,000 unemployed considered by experts to be “normal, the unemployed organized a “lie down demonstration” in Line Street. In August 1939, one month before the outbreak of the Second World War Huyton tenants struck against rent increases and women “picketed with perambulators”.

The Origins of Trotskyism in Liverpool

The late 1930s saw the first beginnings of a Marxist force which was to play such a decisive role in the labor movement in the 1980s. Trotskyism – the genuine continuation of the ideas of Lenin and the Russian Revolution – originated in Liverpool not from the Communist Party, but from the Independent Labour Party and to some extent from the Labour Party.

Tommy Birchall and Jimmy Deane were two of the pioneers of Trotskyism in the city. The Deane family in particular had a long tradition of struggle, along with Jimmy Deane, his brothers Arthur and Brian, and his mother Gertie were all in the Trotskyist movement. Gertie Deane’s father Charles Carrick had been one of the first Labour councilors in Liverpool. Both Jimmy Deane and Tommy Birchall still adhere to the ideas of their youth, are firm supporters of the Militant, but through ill-health are no longer able to be fully active in the labor movement. (see Appendices 4 and 5 for interviews with Tommy Birchall and Jimmy Deane). In 1938 they came into contact with Ted Grant, who at that time was – and still remains – the theoretician and principal leader of Trotskyism in Britain.

It is on the shoulders of these pioneers, as well as many others who are to numerous to mention, that the present generation of Liverpool militants stand. Their work laid the foundations for a powerful Marxist force in the city, without which the mighty movement of the Liverpool working class would not have reached such a pitch.