The month of September 1985 proved to be a decisive turning point in the Liverpool struggle. Isolated by the capitulation of other councils, the Liverpool labor movement was thrown back on its own resources. While the National Local Authority shop stewards Combine Committee had indicated that they were still prepared to support Liverpool in the event of a confrontation, any decisions had to take into account the retreat of the other councils. Moreover, Kenneth Baker and Patrick Jenkin continued their refusal to help Liverpool. This, together with the setting of the 9 percent rate, meant that money to pay wages and provide services would run out at a certain stage.
At this decisive juncture, Thomas McMahon, the new “tough” District Auditor, stepped in. He demanded that the council either cut its services or spending, and go to the High Court to get the original rate quashed in order to set a new one that would in effect pay the bills, or start preparing redundancy notices for its 30,000 employees. Thus the idea of issuing “redundancy notices”, which was to have such a baleful effect on the course of the struggle, had originated with the District Auditor and been echoed by Treasury and council officials.
The opponents of the council, both at national and local level, including the white-collar union leaders, argued for “capitalization” in order to temporarily “dig the council our of a hole”. This meant spending money available for capital projects (e.g. new building) instead of certain areas of revenue (day to day) spending. The City Treasurer had identified £27 million of housing repairs and maintenance for the two years 1984-5 and 1985-6, which, though normally revenue spending, could be classified as capital work. As long as it was paid from existing capital receipts (e.g. income from council house sales) and not from borrowing, it would avoid the limit the government placed on the city’s capital spending. If enough capital receipts could be found, this could reduce the revenue budget by £27 million, reducing the overall expenditure of £255 million, which in turn, would mean that government grants would begin to flow back, enabling the council to reach the end of the financial year before the money ran out. This, the preferred solution of the national labor and trade-union leaders, could have solved the immediate financial crisis, but at the cost of the housebuilding program and of the jobs that it created both in the public and private sector, something the council was determined to resist.
Prison to Paradise
Increasingly, even the perjured local press and media had to reflect the delight of those who had benefited from the housing program. On September 12th the Echo expressed the genuine appreciation of many towards the improvements introduced by the council:
Margaret Dolphin has just moved home. It was a short move, but it took her from prison to paradise. Prison was a grotty tenement building targeted by mindless vandals; paradise is a spanking new, two-bedroomed house with its own garden. “It is marvelous. It is like a million dollars to me”, said Margaret, 62, as she proudly showed off her new home in Leason Street, just off Scotland Road.
The article was a complete vindication of the Urban Regeneration Strategy and the concept which lay behind it. Even the Echo was constrained to comment:
More than 3000 families have been rehoused, and work is continuing on another 3000 properties in the urban regeneration strategy which is designed to provide houses with gardens, straightforward street layouts, improved street lighting, landscaped areas and parks and better community facilities. [Tony Byrne said] It is the most important program which has happened in Liverpool since the war. We are creating environments where people can live happy lives and bring up their families, and by doing this we are creating work in the private sector.
The Echo commented:
The figures back up the proud claims; a £3.5 million road improvement scheme, in conjunction with Merseyside County Council, 100 community shops improved, £140 million worth of building contracts which have generated 12,000 jobs.
How could the Echo comment otherwise, given the delight of ordinary workers:
“It is just like the old days”, added Margaret, whose old school friend Annie Devine has moved in two doors down, “I think they are gorgeous, especially after living in a flat for 30 years”, said Annie (60)… “I lived in the Great Mersey Street flats and they were terrible. We had awful damp coming up from two empty flats below, and we only had a little veranda. It is a lot quieter here. It is marvelous having a garden, and I would not be without one now. I do not think that those other flats we lived in should ever have been built.”
The Echo painted an almost idyllic scene: “Neighbors lean over garden walls and fences for a chat as the community spirit flows again.”
But there was no such “community spirit” displayed by the Echo, and Post and the national media towards those who had rescued workers from the slums. Capitalization, if adopted, would have maintained a situation in which thousands of working-class families were condemned to years of damp and sometimes vermin-infested hovels which passed for homes in parts of the city. Many of the white-collar union leaders in particular were to put on what they falsely considered were the short-term interests of their own members and their jobs before those of the wider working-class. The councilors sought to defend all jobs, those in the private sector building program as well as council jobs and services. In the period leading up to September, the leadership of NUPE and the NUT consistently opposed any action in support of the council, and yet the councilors risked surcharge, with a fine of £106,000 hanging over their heads, bankruptcy and possible imprisonment to defend the jobs of teachers and NUPR workers, amongst others. In the face of the implacable refusal of the government to give further assistance, the councilors decided to approach the government for a £25 million loan, which would allow it to balance the books. At the same time, they made contingency plans for when the money ran out. The council’s legal and financial experts had advised them that under the 1978 Employment Protection Act, once the money ran out, they would be forced to terminate the contracts of all council employees. Failure to do so could have left the councilors personally liable for the £23 million “redundancy pay” which the 30,000 local authority workers were entitled to. Under local government law, a council cannot lay off workers but has to terminate their contracts, which in effect is redundancy. Moreover, the City Treasurer advised that failure to act “legally” by issuing the redundancy notices would have resulted in the Public Works Loans Board refusing permission for Liverpool to raise loans on the money markets to pay for day to day expenditure. This in turn would have meant that the council would have run out of money within a few weeks. Therefore workers would receive no wages after this period. The “legal” device of redundancy notices would at least allow wages to be paid until the end of 1985. This would have allowed time to build the campaign to force the government to pay back the cash stolen from the city.
The ruling class has deliberately framed local government law in order to entangle councils in such legal niceties. Perhaps if the Liverpool City Council had been entirely made up of Militant supporters there would have been no argument as the Marxists would have gone the whole way. But the councilors had felt let down, particularly by the refusal of the white-collar union leaders to fully back them. The Labour group decided on the “tactic” of issuing 90-day redundancy notices to the 30,000 strong workforce to gain that period as a breathing space in order to build the campaign. It was absurd to suggest, as the press and to their shame the national trade-union leaders subsequently did, that 30,000 workers were to be sacked. The raison d’être of the struggle was precisely to defend jobs.
However, the issuing of “redundancy notices” turned out to be a major tactical error. The great military strategist Clausewitz once said that “military warfare needs the kind of mathematics of a Euclid or a Newton”. More simply, political algebra is necessary. For anybody leading a major political struggle, it is necessary to visualize, not just how the active workers will view the problem, but how your enemies can exploit your statements, strategy and tactics.
When the tactic was explained to those workers who could be reached, there was support and understanding. In particular there was widespread support from among the manual workers. For the wider population of Liverpool, for people nationally, and even for the majority of the 30,000 local authority workforce, however, political understanding is gleaned primarily from the fragments of news which are snatched from the television or the press.
As soon as the issue of “redundancy notices” was raised, a hue and cry which dwarfed all other campaigns, was set up by the national press. On September 6, the Daily Express screamed: “Threat to sack 30,000 workers.” The Times waded in: “Liverpool to lay off 30,000 staff.” The Sun reported the “redundancies” as an accomplished fact: “30,000 workers sacked by rebel city council”. The predictable headline in the Echo was: “Happy Christmas – Get your Cards”. Even the ultra-left Newsline, journal of the tiny Workers Revolutionary Party stated: “Liverpool workers face sack”. Kenneth Baker, Environment Minister, while making ritualistic statements about the council’s “irresponsibility” nevertheless said that he would reconsider the request by the council to borrow £25 million. This however was subsequently turned down as the Tories decided to put the screws on Liverpool.
The “redundancy notices” issue split the leaders of the council workforce. Many white-collar workers were genuinely concerned that if their contracts were terminated, and in the meantime the threat of surcharge brought a Liberal-Tory coalition to power, many would not be re-employed. These fears were well-founded, as the Echo pointed out that: “the Liberal Sir Trevor has already warned that the ‘Jobs for the Boys’ tactics have been noted and that known Militants would be sacked if his party took control”. However, the white-collar union leaders did not advance a viable alternative to the scheme of the council. Nothing was proposed which could offer a way out to councilors who were faced with a £23 million surcharge for defending their members’ jobs and conditions.
The issue came to a head at a meeting of the Joint Shop Stewards committee on September 7. After a long and bitter debate, the white-collar unions won the day. The acceptance of the redundancy plan was narrowly beaten by 51 votes to 48. Now instead of the money running out in December, it would run out in a matter of weeks. However, unless the Labour councilors at least appeared to be “issuing redundancy notices”, they would still be financially liable. In order to prevent this and to safeguard the councilors, the council workforce decided to surround the Town Hall and to prevent the council meeting from taking place.
At the Labour Party’s Local Government Committee, the Chair, David Blunkett, promised that the next Labour government would introduce legislation to lift any penalties which fell on the 81 councilors involved (in Liverpool and Lambeth). He said:
This action confirms a long-held view that the audit service is being used as a political tool by the Tory government… I want to give notice now that any penalties imposed on the councilors will be lifted by the next Labour government (Labour Weekly 13 September 1985).
The Daily Telegraph screamed: “No case to indemnify.” Ever sensitive to the democratic workings of the Labour Party, it declared:
It has only now, following the District Auditor’s decision to surcharge Lambeth and Liverpool Labour councilors, become clear that it is Labour Party policy to indemnify councilors against these surcharges. It slipped through [at the 1984 Labour Party Conference] without even a vote, no doubt while everyone was concentrating on the miners.
On September 13, the controller of the Audit Commission, John Banham, attacked the “lawless and willful misconduct of councilors at Labour-controlled Liverpool and Lambeth” (Guardian 14 September 1985). Banham at the time, and since, has been at pains to declare that the Audit Commission was “non-political”. But this body was set up under Thatcher’s government in 1983 to coordinate the auditing of local government. It claimed to have set itself the goal of weeding out “overspending” and inefficiency in local government. However in 1984-5 it employed 596 people at a cost of £17.5 million. In 1985-6 it employed 600 and cost taxpayers £22 million. This worked out at almost £30,000 per worker in 1984-5 and almost £37,000 per worker in the year 1985-6, an increase of 21 percent – about seven times the rate of inflation. After doing the dirty work for Thatcher in local government, Banham in 1987 went off to become director-general of the CBI.
His replacement was David Cooksey, who had been associated with three Scottish manufacturing companies in 1983 in which he had the majority of shares and which went into receivership, owing £500,000 and making 85 people lose their jobs. Not a hint of “surcharge” against this worthy, and yet the people who were saving jobs and defending working people were being hounded by the agency which he presided over.
Again the Echo, in the midst of the “redundancy notices” crisis, reported the delight of working people at the change which had resulted from the measures of the city council. On September 13th, they carried a photograph of Tony Mulhearn and council chair Hugh Dalton being toasted by council tenants who had been rehoused in the Garston area. It declared: “For decades, the people of Shakespeare, Otway and Byron Streets in Garston, have lived in some of the worst slums in the city.” Working people have very modest aims, as the statement of one pensioner showed: “This area is my home, and I wouldn’t want to leave. But our old houses were disgusting. Now I’ve got everything I want in life – my friends around me and a beautiful new home.” A young mother of two said, “We are one, big, happy family here, and I wanted Peter and Stephen to be part of that. We could never have been happy in the old slums, but now everything is perfect.”
The Echo carried this under the headline “The happiest stories are in your Echo.” There would have been fewer happy stories if capitalization, which the Echo supported, had been implemented. The imaginative scheme of Liverpool City Council gave just a glimpse of what would have been possible on the basis of a national housing plan which involved the complete eradication of the slums.
The Liverpool City Council Joint Shop Stewards Committee (JSSC) met and vetoed capitalization. Instead, they proposed an all-out strike to force the government to aid the council. NALGO attempted to drag its heels, insisting on the withdrawal of the “redundancy notices”. Meanwhile, a ferocious campaign was launched by the media to break the spirit of council workers. The Daily Mail, once more in the vanguard, in an editorial (16 September) declared: “Playing Trot Poker with the city’s fate.” They were urging the government to prepare for war:
The government is quite happy to be ready to mobilize all its resources for whatever might happen… Nobody should underestimate the risks of such an unprecedented modern confrontation between the British state and the socialist revolutionaries entrenched in the crumbling structures of one of its once great and now stricken cities.
Reflecting on the changed conditions in which the battle was taking place that year, it commented: “Last year, Tory ministers had Arthur Scargill and the striking miners to contend with and they weren’t anxious to fight on two fronts.” However, the ruling class were still not entirely confident of the outcome of such a struggle despite the end of the miners’ strike. This was indicated by the comments of the Daily Mail: “There is this year all too recently the horror of Handsworth [an area of Birmingham where savage riots had recently taken place] to brand in the political consciousness the ease with which mob criminality can engulf a decaying urban landscape.” Its front page (16 September) declared: “Plans for troops in crisis city”. On the basis of inside information it went on:
An evacuation program to transfer people under the council’s direct control to the Isle of Man. This would cover those in detention Centers, approved schools and council care. An empty hospital on the island is among buildings already requisitioned.
Kenneth Baker denied reports of the possible use of troops in the event of council services collapsing, but admitted: “The government has general contingency plans for the maintenance of essential services throughout the country. It’s up to the council to put things right.” The Daily Express once more characterized Liverpool as a “City in shambles”. But reflecting the fear that things could get out of hand it stated: “There are many battles ahead. But few can now underestimate the potential seriousness of the ruling left’s strategy in Liverpool.” The press were at one in declaring that Baker must remain “firm”. The Daily Telegraph commented:
He must ensure that Liverpool fully realizes the consequences of voting in Militant and that central government is not prepared to pay for the consequence of the council’s policies. Yet he cannot allow the administration of the city to collapse completely. For the time being Liverpool should be left to sweat it out. Commissioners, if they are needed, should be sent in later rather than sooner.
Threats of Commissioners, of legal action, of action by the government and the District Auditor, were all hurled at the councilors. The Times reported: “Asked if it was legal to call a strike this way, Mr. Lowes (Chair of the JSSC) said: ‘I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care’.”
The Liberals and their partners once more had the whiff of power. They were looking for an early demise of the council, and the sharing of power with the Tories. They even offered to collaborate with the Labour “moderates” in a “grand coalition” to run the city. The Sun, in its usual sober fashion, had an “exclusive” of a “secret plot”. On September 17, they had a headline: “Red Wreckers in Secret Plot to Seize a City.” Labour were supposed to have had a plan which involved “barricades in the streets, businesses paralyzed, rubbish war on wealthy, schools and courts shut”.
Occasionally, behind the hysteria, the capitalist press would cast some light on the real intentions of the government and the background to the crisis: “Certainly the fact that the two batches of certificates were issued to councilors in Lambeth and Liverpool on the same day last week seems to suggest that for the first time two Auditors had coordinated their actions rather than working as individuals” (Guardian 17 September). This disposes of the claim that the Audit Commission was entirely neutral and not a political tool of the Thatcher government.
The decision of the JSSC to recommend all-out strike action initiated a period of unprecedented and widespread political debate that spread beyond the council workforce to all corners of the city. The pioneers of Trotskyism in the city in the 1930s had wistfully looked towards the day when mass meetings under their influence would take place in the Liverpool boxing stadium. Now the outline of this scenario was beginning to take shape. One section of the workforce after another trooped towards the stadium to discuss and debate the merits and demerits of an all-out strike. Local café owners and pubs ran out of food and beer as workers poured into and out of the stadium. At one stage it was even suggested that a mass meeting of the full 30,000 council workers would take place at Goodison Park, home of the Everton Football Club. This plan, however, was vetoed by the white-collar leaders who insisted on separate meetings.
The first group of workers to take a decision were the teachers. A mass meeting at the Philharmonic Hall heard speeches from Derek Hatton and others calling for strike action. Labour speakers outlined Liverpool’s program for defending education. Unfortunately, the teachers, miseducated over a whole period by their leaders, who were opposing all-out strike action, voted narrowly not to come out on strike. This caused great bitterness among other workers and was a considerable boost to the government and the opponents of the council.
Unlike the manual workers, a significant section of teachers lived outside the city boundaries and were putting their own narrow interests before those of the workers in the city and particularly the youth whom they taught. Jim Ferguson, the Liverpool Branch Secretary of the NUT and member of the Communist Party, even declared that it would be “unfair to deprive the city’s school-children, many of whom had reached a crucial time in their education”, by going on strike! This statement could have been lifted from any hostile capitalist newspaper during the teachers’ strike in the following year.
Sensing that the initiative was passing out of the hands of the council, Kenneth Baker piled on the pressure. He rejected out-of-hand permission for the council to borrow £25 million on the money markets but this rejection, rather than deterring the manual workers, only reinforced their determination. GMBATU members, at a series of mass meetings, voted by 4345 to 2934 in favor of all-out strike action. UCATT stewards voted by 54 to 4 to recommend strike action, which was upheld by mass meetings. The TGWU also voted by massive majorities in favor. A majority of the manual workers had now voted in favor. A majority of the manual workers had now voted in favor of strike action and despite their public display of confidence, the ruling class in these crucial days were not at all convinced that they could control the situation.
David Steel, on behalf of the Liberals in Merseyside, launched another broadside on September 22, threatening to take the council leaders to court. He also urged the government to take whatever “legal action” was necessary to dismiss the council. His local acolyte, David Alton, called for a “rainbow coalition” of Tories, Liberals and Labour “moderates” who would support massive job cuts. Included in this “rainbow coalition” were the self-appointed “leaders” of the black community, the infamous Black Caucus who had used violence against Labour representatives. But, even now, despite all the talk of “chaos”, the Liberals and the Tory government hesitated to use legal action against the council.
Every voice seemed to be raised against the council from the hysterical Sun, right through to The Times and embracing the trade-union and labor leaders. The Sun (21 September) quoted a neighbor of Derek Hatton: “He is a hated man known as the Thing of Thingwall Road”. Another, from the safety of Woolton declared: “Militants – I could shoot the lot of them. My daughter Alison is about to sit her ‘O’ Levels. I am very very worried. Our children read newspapers. They feel they are in a hopeless situation already. Even if they pass exams, what work will there be for them?” The Times (21 September) however admitted that the problems of Liverpool were not created by “the Militants”: “The city of Liverpool would have faced gross fiscal difficulties in this decade, regardless of who might rule in the municipal chambers.” But this rare admission was followed in the same article with demands that Baker must punish the whole city for daring to vote for “the Militants”:
Liverpool must undergo its trial… now, and perhaps for much of the Autumn, the city and the watching nation must be educated by the example it wants to make of itself. Mr. Hatton and Labour made their decisions in their budgets for this year. The results are on their heads.
The Times confirmed here what Leon Trotsky referred to as the “cold cruelty” of the British ruling class in its dealings with its colonial slaves. It was now displaying the same feelings towards the population of the fifth largest city in Britain. The next few months were to show that the policies of the ruling class were to inflict the maximum suffering on the most vulnerable sections of the population of Liverpool, using this in turn as a weapon with which to attack the Liverpool labor movement.
Pressure was stepped up on the Labour leaders to “disown” Militant and the Liverpool labor movement. This phrase, first used in an editorial by the Daily Mail on September 23, became Kinnock’s stock phrase during the ensuing crisis. The national union leaders exerted pressure on the regional officials, particularly those in the GMBATU. The 200 shop stewards representing GMBATU members working for Liverpool City Council were written to by the regional officials, urging them to oppose the all-out strike. Ian Lowes’ rejoinder reflected the attitude of the majority of the GMBATU stewards: “I will be advising members to ignore the region, which has an appalling record over saving jobs on Merseyside. All they will be doing is to lead us to sign on the dole.”
Maxwell’s Daily Mirror outdid even the Sun in a typically “balanced” editorial on September 24th headlined: “Militant Madness”. Bending the truth it declared:
The roots of the call for a strike lie not so much in Tory cuts as in the purpose of the Militant Tendency-dominated council. Other cities in Britain have been as badly hurt by government policies. But all… compromised rather than cause chaos in the cities they rule. Why is Liverpool different? Because it is dominated by Militant Tendency… Despite what they proudly proclaim about their achievements since coming to power, policies they have pursued have hurt most the homeless, the poor, the unemployed and the children.
Thus, even the well-documented achievements of the council were completely denied by multi-millionaire “socialist” Robert Maxwell, such was his hatred of what Militant and the city council represented. Derek Hatton was attacked as a “Red Messiah, destined to bring on the revolution.” The Communist Party joined hands with the Daily Mirror when they stated on the eve of the proposed strike:
Many union officials are concerned about being bounced into strike action, without adequate consultation with council leaders. They want to examine any alternatives that may avoid serious industrial chaos within the city (Morning Star 29 September).
In a statement which angered all the best militants in the GMBATU who had fought against the dead hand of bureaucratism over years they also commented: “The dangerous ultra leftism within the struggle at Liverpool was again reflected yesterday in attacks on regional officials of the GMBATU by Deputy Council Leader Derek Hatton, and by the Joint Shop Stewards Chairman, Ian Lowes, on the unions which are not supporting the strike call.” These union leaders had played a baleful role in the course of the struggle over the previous two years. They were now to play a decisive role in derailing the call for all-out strike action in the period leading up to September 25th.
All-Out Strike Rejected
Fifty-eight percent of GMBATU members voted for strike action. UCATT members voted by three to one and the TGWU also voted by a good majority to come out on strike. Of the manual unions, only the EETPU had voted against. The decision as to whether the council workforce would undertake an all-out struggle was lying in the balance pending the decision of leaders of NUPE and NALGO. But the NUPE leader, Jane Kennedy, who was later to attack the District Labour Party for its “lack of democracy” refused even to sanction a vote on the issue amongst the 2700 NUPE members. This “super-democrat” was prepared to support a one-day strike, but urged her members not to participate in the all-out stoppage. She did everything to whip up opposition towards Militant and the council leadership among NUPE members. Thus, in the same issue of NUPE’s Advice and Information News-sheet which urged support for a one-day strike, it quoted in full the anti-Militant witch-hunting resolution that had been passed at the NUPE conference. This behavior, however, was not lost on the low-paid NUPE members whose jobs were at stake in this battle. In the aftermath of the September 25 strike, these workers, many of them very low-paid women workers, almost mobbed Jane Kennedy at an unprecedented NUPE branch meeting. Hundreds turned out, blocking Dale Street and forcing the NUPE leadership to abandon the meeting.
The leadership of the college lecturers’ union, NATFHE, who similarly opposed the militant stand of the council, also refused to allow their members to vote. The decision as to whether to go ahead with the strike rested then on the shoulders of NALGO.
NALGO leaders Graham Burgess and Peter Cresswell (the former a Communist Party member) were on record in support of the defense of their members’ jobs by the city council. However, this “support” took a curious form. For months, NALGO campaign briefings had prominently featured articles which lampooned Derek Hatton, repeating all the slanders of the capitalist press about his “expensive suits”. Moreover, many slanted articles were carried attacking the appointment of Sam Bond. While giving verbal, lukewarm support for an all-out strike, the actual material put out by NALGO implied the opposite. On the eve of the proposed all-out strike, a NALGO newsletter carried the following statement:
Tuesday’s Echo carried a story headed: “Strike was our idea, says NALGO leader”, quoting branch chairperson Graham Burgess as saying that the strike was “all our ides”… it is not however the case that the strike on the 25th was “NALGO’s idea”; in fact we initially suggested that no action be taken until the money ran out. But the majority of trade unionists voted for a strike, and we have an obligation to put that before our members.
If this was support for strike action, what would opposition look like? At the mass meetings in the stadium, the NALGO leaders formally put the motion for strike action, but were heavily defeated by 3891 to 1445. Given the lack of a campaign, indeed given the anti-council standpoint of its leaders together with the vicious baiting in the press, it is incredible that almost 1500 NALGO members were still firmly in favor of all-out strike action.
The stewards of the manual unions, strongly influenced by Militant supporters, had to take a fateful position on the early evening of September 24th. The question was posed: should the manual workers, despite being in a minority, unilaterally take strike action? The manual workers had voted solidly in favor of strike action, and would have been able to “tie up” the city if they had come out. The caretakers alone could have closed all the schools in Liverpool but the only branch of the GMBATU which had voted against strike action was in the education department which was led by convener Peter Lennard who was not a Militant supporter. Indeed he was later, for a mixture of personal and political reasons, to become an opponent of Militant. Among those sections of the workforce where Militant supporters were in strength or had a decisive influence, the case was put firmly and the majority of the workers, in a secret ballot, voted for strike action.
The ultra lefts urged the manual workers to strike. Reference to the minority voting for strike action was denounced as “ballotitis” that is, an alleged fetish about achieving a majority before a strike could be called. Unbelievably, they invoked the example of the miners in 1984. Yet as Militant has consistently pointed out, one of the fundamental weaknesses of the miners’ strike was the failure of the leadership to hold a ballot which would have resulted in an overwhelming majority confirming the strike action which was in progress. The idea that the actions of a “determined minority” can bulldoze other workers to come out on strike without discussion and a democratic vote is absolutely false.
The total vote of all the workers was 7284 for strike action and 8152 against. In this situation, to have gone ahead with strike action would have courted a split between the trade unions, with the possibility of conflicts on the picket lines which would have been exploited by the press and all the opponents of the council. Therefore, while saluting the workers who voted in favor of strike action, particularly the manual workers, the stewards recommended that the strike be called off.
Acquiescence to this decision was achieved with some difficulty. Many council workers such as members of the security force and the cleansing workers who had most to lose if the council were defeated, congregated at the Town Hall to await the decision of the stewards. It also seemed as if the world’s media were gathered outside the municipal annex that evening. The press at one stage had to be protected from the anger of these workers, and only the intervention of Militant supporters from amongst the stewards, prevented a violent assault on the press corps.
Frustrated that their call for all-out strike action had failed, the stewards of the manual workers’ unions decided to recommend that a one-day strike go ahead the following day, September 25.
While this drama was unfolding, the Guardian (25 September) carried a letter which once more underlined the achievements of the council. This letter was all the more remarkable as the author, Lord Reg Underhill, was a long-standing opponent of the Militant. His hostility, however, could not prevent him from recording what he had seen with his own eyes:
As President of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, I attended a conference at Southport, with a number of other delegates, I went to see the effects of Liverpool’s regeneration strategy. After visiting an excellent exhibition in the City Hall, we toured the city and looked at many of the 17 priority areas already being developed.
The five year plan is to get rid of outdated and sub-standard housing, the crumbling tenements and soulless systems-built tower flats. Already 3800 separate homes have been built, with their own private gardens and nearby off-street parking… improved street layouts, with tree-lined residential roads are planned. We saw the start of the 100 acre park at Everton and of the initial development of other local parks. There are to be seven support Centers; three have just been opened. The scheme will provide work for 12,000 with side effects producing further thousands of jobs. Without commenting on the rating situation, how much is being saved to the Treasury by this employment?
Shamefully, this letter was buried amongst the gloating headlines which greeted the calling off of the strike. The Daily Mirror jeered, “Militants forced to stop city strike.” In London, the Evening Standard, notwithstanding the vote, declared “Liverpool’s strike ballot rigged”, and “Militant rebellion left in tatters”.
But the most malevolent comments came from the political correspondent of The Times, Anthony Bevins, who wrote on September 25th:
People of Liverpool wait for deliverance… The 540,000 people of Liverpool are caught between the Militant devils and the deep blue Conservative government in a clash which is not of their making… it is a measure of the Militant terror that there is not one Labour MP or union leader who will come out into the open and say publicly what they say in private about the Trotskyist takeover of the party and the unions in the city.
On the evening of September 24th, Bevins confided to a Militant supporter that Kinnock was planning a “Bombshell” for Militant and its supporters. Bevins was confident that this would effectively eliminate the influence of Marxism in the city. Fifteen months later, after Kinnock had tried every measure to undermine support for Militant the same Bevins, having shifted his journalistic allegiance, was to write: “He [Kinnock] had not broken the Trotskyists and never will” (Independent 7 January 1987).
The September 25 Strike
Kenneth Baker was naturally triumphant at the rejection of all-out strike action: “The morale of the Militants must be very low this morning” (Echo 25 September). He declared: “Derek Hatton had lost… it is a major setback for the revolutionary politics of the Militant councilors and the Militant shop stewards.” Yet the Echo on the same day, reporting the effect of the strike, declared “Strike City… Liverpool was a city in chaos today as thousands of council workers downed tools in protest against the government. Services were cut, some schools were open, some were shut.”
Despite the defeat of the all-out strike motion, the demonstration in the city that day was extremely buoyant. Upwards of 50,000 – nearly one in ten of the city’s population – in a remarkable display of support of the working class for the council’s fight against the government, marched to the Town Hall. Derek Hatton declared: “This strike and demonstration is not a wake, but a springboard for further action.” Nevertheless, the councilors keenly felt the defeat of the all-out strike vote. The feeling that the white-collar union leaders had once more abandoned the councilors who had put everything on the line to defend jobs, was widespread.
The next week was to see a barrage of propaganda, orchestrated by Fleet Street, against the city. This was the week before the Labour Party Conference and the press exerted colossal pressure on Kinnock to attack both Liverpool City Council and the miners. The miners were demanding indemnification for the vicious fines and financial attacks on the union and Liverpool was demanding the future reinstatement of any surcharged and debarred councilors.
National union leaders stepped in just before the Labour Party Conference to back up those who were opposing the “redundancy notices” but they did not offer a viable alternative which would prevent the councilors from being surcharged. Yet the only other alternatives were an all-out strike, which they had already opposed; or massive cuts which would affect their own members, or huge rate increases which they would not dare to propose.
The councilors, to their eternal credit, despite being rebuffed in the all-out strike call, still stubbornly refused to carry out cuts. The right-wing Labour opponents of Militant had no other policy than to hope that “something would turn up”. The NALGO leaders loftily declared that they were prepared to “let the money run out”. This did not solve the dilemma confronting the councilors who each faced a £500,000 surcharge if the necessary arrangements to pay “redundancy pay” were not made. In this situation, the redundancy notices that had been withdrawn when all-out strike action looked possible were now, incorrectly put back on the agenda.
Safe in the knowledge that the national and local trade-union leaders would not come to the assistance of the council, Baker was “intent on letting Liverpool stew” according to the Guardian. At the Tory Party Conference a few weeks later, he would boast that Liverpool had been allowed to “twist in the wind”. Thus the sick, the old, the suffering of the disabled were used to bring the council to heel. The Daily Mirror, speaking of the forthcoming three months when the money would run out, warned of “a winter of death” but firmly placed the responsibility on the shoulders of the city council and not the Tory government, while the Star reported that “Crisis city faces probe by police.”
Labour Party Conference
The issue of Militant was to dominate not only the Labour Party Conference, but also the Liberal, Tory and SDP Conferences. Just before the Labour Party Conference, David Alton, Liberal Chief Whip, demanded that Neil Kinnock “Leader of the Labour Party… expel Militant leaders of the council.” Four Cabinet Ministers at the Conservative Party conference, led by Tebbit and Thatcher, denounced Militant and Liverpool City Council, and also demanded that Neil Kinnock carry through the expulsion of Militant from the Labour Party. This call, long before the labor leaders had decided on expulsions, showed where the real instigators of the witch-hunt were – in the Tory Cabinet.
In the run-up to the Labour Party Conference, many articles and almost every editorial in the capitalist press, numerous programs and comments on television, were all directed at securing a blow against the left, particularly against Militant supporters and councilors in Merseyside. The Sun, striking its usual moderate tone, asked, on September 28th: “Will Kinnock keep his mad dogs at bay?” It said: “If Tony Benn gets the chance, he will swing the conference behind Militant Derek Hatton’s crazy bid to bankrupt Merseyside.” Woodrow Wyatt, incredibly once on the left of the Labour Party, in his News of the World column dismissed the “Loony Left’s way to lose jobs”. The Sunday Express predicted that Kinnock “in a big speck at the Party’s Conference on Tuesday, will tell both the miners’ leaders and the Militant councilors at Liverpool: grow up – or get out”.
The Sunday Mirror carried vicious attacks on Derek Hatton, with a probe into his private life. Yet in the midst of this tirade, an opinion poll carried in the Sunday Times (29 September) showed the roots which the council had sunk among the population of the city. When asked which way people would vote if an election were held, 55 percent said they would vote Labour, 34 percent SDP-Liberal Alliance and 11 percent for the Tories. This represented an incredible 9 percent increase of Labour’s share of the vote in the 1984 elections, when 46 percent had voted for Labour. In what the Sunday Times called “unprompted replies… 55 percent blamed wither Mrs. Thatcher or the government for the dispute”. A colossal 86 percent of those questioned declared that the government did not care for the people of the area, which included 56 percent of Tory supporters! At the same time, 88 percent were in favor of Baker, Secretary of State for the Environment, agreeing to talks.
Thus, despite all the turmoil and inevitable confusion generated by the “redundancy notices” issue, the bedrock of Labour support had increased. Unfortunately, the Labour leadership were completely impervious to this. Kinnock was determined, it subsequently became clear, to use the occasion of his Labour Party Conference speck to show that a Labour government led by him would be “safe” for capitalism. The miners’ leadership and Liverpool City Council were to be the whipping boys.
In the pre-conference round of interviews, Kinnock gave a none too subtle hint of the nature of the attack which he would make on Militant. On TV-AM on September 29 he criticized Liverpool City Council for provoking what he called a “crisis of anxiety” amongst the authorities 30,000 employees by issuing redundancy notices. He came out in favor of a £27 million capitalization of housing income, which he argued could solve the crisis. Pressed on the influence of Militant and particularly of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, Kinnock said that the presence of the Militant Tendency was exaggerated, but that he was “interested in getting people like that out of the Labour Party. They could only be removed on the basis of firm proof that they were members of Militant, but when that proof comes – out they go” (Guardian 30 September). Tony Byrne, in a typically blunt fashion replied:
It’s about time he [Kinnock] stood up and represented ordinary working-class people instead of trying to persuade Labour councilors to comply with Thatcher cuts… Before he starts using fancy words like capitalization, he should be brave enough to explain to ordinary working-class people just what it means. He should tell people living in tenements that they will have to go on living there, and tell old people living in unimproved houses and using outside toilets that they will have to go on using them.
Kinnock’s anomalous position with respect to the councilors was shown when the NEC decided on the Sunday before the conference to support a motion which instructed a Labour government to compensate retrospectively Labour councilors in Lambeth and Liverpool if they were surcharged.
Hostility to the left in the media was nothing new in the run-up to the Labour Party Conference. But the unanimity, the similarity of language deployed against the left in general, and against Arthur Scargill and Derek Hatton in particular, was striking. The “Labour” Daily Mirror ranted on the day the conference began:
Scargill and Hatton are mob orators… Militant policies, reckless posturing and deliberate law-breaking offered nothing to the mass of working people whose plight created the Labour Party… What Labour’s mad left won’t understand is that any party pledged to those policies will never form a government… if it still wants to win, it has to reject Scargill and Hatton.
Kinnock’s “Grotesque” Speech
The campaign against Militant by Kinnock and others at the Labour Party Conference, was carefully prepared. On the morning on which Kinnock was to deliver his speech, The Times carried a vitriolic attack by the Liverpool church leaders: “Stand up to Liverpool’s Militants.” Meanwhile, the Bishops lamely argued the case for a “consensus” approach:
Faced with such difficulties, a great city needs to bring all the resources which people of good will can muster. Our Christian teaching is that we are members of one another. The dogmatic, divisive policies of the Militant leadership reject this… now the head-on clash has occurred, and a very dangerous moment in the life of our city is being reached.
The class gulf, which had now widened to a chasm, between the great majority of the working-class population of Liverpool and the Tory government with their capitalist backers could not be comprehended by these good shepherds. But in arguing their case, they did not hesitate to bend the truth: “We deplore the confrontation that has, to a great extent, been manufactured by the Militant leadership of the city council.” Perhaps the Militant engineered the “confrontation” in Toxteth in 1981? All the powers of dialogue, millions of words arguing the case for “Christian” compassion and consensus had not touched the “soul” of various Tory governments.
Only when the population of Liverpool, “got up off its knees” and in their tens of thousands moved into action did a different tone emanate from the corridors of power. The Bishops had been unnerved, like many others with their roots with their roots in the middle class, by the determination of the working class to see the struggle through to a conclusion. It was precisely to avoid the incredible misery and suffering in the city that the struggle had been engaged in the first place. Yet the bishops piously declared:
Militant’s intransigence and unwillingness to engage in serious dialogue creates divisiveness and uncertainty in which the most vulnerable elements of the community suffer, usually school children and elderly people, unable to cope with a reduction of services.
At the same time, they gave their blessing to the arguments of the Black Caucus:
The deliberate importation into the city of black members of the Militant Tendency from London brings a dangerous threat to the fragile but growing emergence of local black organizations. The appointment of Sam Bond as Principal Race Relations Adviser was a needless affront to he black community.
Sam Bond’s appointment was an affront to nobody but the self-appointed black leaders around the Black Caucus.
On the morning of Kinnock’s speech at the Labour Party Conference, Liverpool displayed remarkable ingenuity in managing its financial affairs, when, to the astonishment of the ruling class, the city council managed to negotiate a £30 million facility through the city stockbrokers, Philips and Drew. This allowed the city to continue financing its capital projects and its housing program. But all of this was of secondary importance to Kinnock, as he prepared to send a signal to the ruling class. Selected journalists were informed of its contents in advance, while most of the press did not receive a copy of his speech until after it had been delivered, something which up to then was quite unique for a Labour Party conference.
Not one syllable of Kinnock’s tirade will be accorded any importance by history, save for his venomous assault on the heroic Liverpool councilors which outdid even the Tories in its viciousness. Not a word of support was uttered for the struggles of Liverpool in defense of the workers of the city and yet not a word of criticism was made either about those Labour councils such as Rhondda, Newcastle or Wakefield, which had provoked strikes by privatization, closure of nurseries and other cutbacks.
His infamous statements about the alleged “grotesque chaos of Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle around a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”, produced pandemonium in the conference hall. Eric Heffer, National Executive Committee member, and MP for Liverpool Walton, stormed off the platform, Boos and cat-calls greeted Kinnock’s statement. While the Liverpool councilors were in power, from 1983-7, no one was made redundant. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Neil Kinnock in the autumn of 1987, when he pushed for 40 real redundancies among staff at the Labour Party’s Walworth headquarters.
Kinnock’s attack provoked widespread indignation throughout Liverpool; the council telephone exchange was jammed with calls of protest. It was interpreted by the great majority of Liverpudlians as yet another attack on the city. In the weeks and months leading up to the Labour Party Conference, the press had pilloried Liverpool as “Smack City”, inhabited mainly by “mindless football hooligans, of the unemployed and unemployable, of layabouts”, an attitude immortalized in the shameful phrase of the Sunday Times: “A majority of lumpens”. Kinnock now seemed to be siding not just with opponents of Militant but with the enemies of Liverpool. The whole Labour group was united in its condemnation of Kinnock’s attack. Even right wingers like Roy Gladden and Joe Devaney, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Mossley Hill, were at one with Militant supporters in repudiating Kinnock’s speech. The Liverpool Labour MPs were unanimous in their condemnation. Bob Parry, the Riverside MP, denounced Kinnock as the “biggest class traitor since Ramsay MacDonald”.
The capitalists greeted Kinnock’s speech with Hosannas. The Mail on Sunday gloated: “A great speech Neil” and it went on: “Everything that Mr. Kinnock had to say about the miners and everything he has had to say about the Militant takeover of Liverpool are what the so-called tight wing capitalist press have been saying – and roundly denounced for doing so – for ages.”
Kinnock’s attack gave the opportunity for “red baiting” which the press had been waiting for. The Daily Mirror gloated: “Left in the Lurch.” The Daily Express went further and urged Kinnock to “Give Bernie Grant, [the Labour candidate in Tottenham] the boot!” It went on: “Either Bernie Grant will be expelled from the Labour Party, or Neil Kinnock will be exposed as a fake, and the prisoner of the extremists he denounces.” At the Tory conference later, Tebbit was to declare:
Nothing could really have changed until extremists and the Militant were thrown out of the [Labour] party altogether… The Labour Party is not going to be able to hide Mr. Scargill, Mr. Hatton and Bernie Grant under the cloak of moderation. We must mot let Mr. Kinnock rest until he moves those people from positions of power in his party.
Echoing Thatcher’s theme in the miners’ strike, the Daily Mail denounced the “enemies within… they are the latter-day disciples of Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. They are the supporters of Militant Tendency.” Every opponent of the left was to be encouraged to raise their head and declare their opposition. The Sunday Telegraph correctly forecast that the attack on Militant was the beginning of “Kinnock’s counter revolution” against the gains on policy and program which had been achieved by Labour’s rank and file in the period of 1979-83.
Kinnock cynically intended his anti-Militant blast at the 1985 Labour Party Conference to be the means of riding to power on an anti-left “moderate” surge. It was calculated to appeal to the so-called middle ground. The Labour right were of course in transports of delight at Kinnock’s speech. Denis Healy declared that this one speech would result in a Labour victory at the next election. Yet at the beginning of 1985 Labour stood at 38 percent in the opinion polls. Two years later, after the assault on Militant which went hand in hand with the jettisoning of left policies and the attack on reselection of MPs, Labour’s popularity remained at the same level and subsequently sank down to 31 percent in the June 1987 General Election.
Kinnock’s assault on Militant and the left was immensely popular in the boardrooms of the monopoly companies and in the editorial chambers of Fleet Street. However, it alienated wide layers of the advanced workers in the Labour Party and trade unions and thereby helped prepare the way for the June 1987 General Election defeat.
Even the filtered Guardian letters columns echoed the widespread indignation and opposition of workers in the labor movement:
As an ordinary branch member, my emotions changed during Mr. Kinnock’s Bournemouth oration from one of solidarity when he talked of “values” and “deceptions” and “policies” encapsulated by the labor movement to one of disbelief during his attack on Liverpool comrades. I did not join the Labour Party to support a “leader” who seems to be as equally corrupted by potential power as David Owen does. I did not join the Labour Party to “play politics” with people’s jobs, homes or services. Nor did I join the Labour Party to denounce councilors for carrying out socialist policies (Guardian 7 October).
On the other hand, the character of Kinnock’s support was perhaps indicated by another letter:
The allegation is that the only real choice for the Labour Party today was between Stalinism and Trotskyism. Faced with such limited options I opt for Stalin every time. Stalin knew how to conduct a good purge and remove the undesirables from the party.
Shades of a Labour “gulag” to which Militant extremists could be banished! Another correspondent wrote:
I am a member of the Liberal Party and I don’t admire Derek Hatton and Arthur Scargill, or their comrades. I do think they are entitled to respect, for following their principles and the Labour Party’s policies, and in the case of the Liverpool and Lambeth councilors being prepared to put themselves at risk. But it is difficult to respect a leader of the Labour Party, who offers principles and policies to the electors like lollipops, but abuses those in his own party who try to follow them. Why is it that Labour Party leaders are so much better at attacking those who should be their friends than they are at attacking the Tory Party?
In a bitter speech, which brought tears to the eyes of miners’ wives present in the conference hall, he set his face against any indemnification of the fines incurred by the miners’ union by a future Labour government. He adopted a similarly implacable position on the surcharge of the councilors of Liverpool and Lambeth. He claimed that no government had ever acted in this fashion, yet in 1975 the Labour government had passed the Housing Finance (Special Provisions) Act to indemnify councilors fined and disqualified for failing to obey a 1970 law obliging them to put up council rents. However, because of the rebellion by the Labour right in the Commons, this legislation did not protect the Clay Cross councilors who had taken a lead in the rent struggle that year.
Despite Kinnock’s intervention, the conference passed a motion calling on a Labour government to recompense the miners and reinstate sacked miners. It also upheld the NEC’s resolution which promised indemnification for councilors.
But above all the right wing and the capitalist press were eagerly looking for the defeat of the motion supporting Liverpool’s struggle. The debate at the conference was one of the most rigged in the recent history of the labor movement. A series of right-wing speakers were lined up to lambaste the council of Militant supporters. Every delegate in the hall was required to occupy a seat allotted to them by the Standing Orders Committee but Jane Saren of NALGO, a confirmed opponent of Militant, and a delegate from the Riverside constituency, was seated for the debate alongside John Cunningham in the parliamentary section. From there she could easily bee seen by the chair and, needless to say, she was duly called to launch her assault on the council. Jane Kennedy, a “rank and file” NUPE delegate, was similarly spotted by the conference Chair. After the conference, Julia Langdon, a former correspondent of Labour Weekly and then a journalist with the Daily Mirror claimed that these “two women trade unionists are living in fear after threats from left-wing extremists”. Not a shred of evidence was ever produced to justify this. The only supporters of Liverpool allowed to speak in the debate were Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. The right wing couldn’t prevent this since they were moving and seconding the motion.
At the end of the Debate, David Blunkett, replying on behalf of the NEC, without consulting Kinnock, asked Liverpool to withdraw its motion in favor of the NEC’s statement. Conference delegates felt an enormous urge for unity reflecting the widespread sentiment of the labor movement. Derek Hatton’s gesture in withdrawing his resolution was therefore widely applauded. It contrasted very favorably with the vicious divisive speech of Kinnock the day before.
The right wing were dismayed by Blunkett’s tactics and they attacked him from behind for his gesture. The capitalist press on the other hand hailed Blunkett’s “tactical adroitness” and skill. In fact, the initiative had not been his but was suggested to him by Militant supporters in a discussion with Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton. To have withdrawn the motion before the debate would have prevented Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn from speaking to the conference. To have allowed the motion to go to vote may have enabled the right wing to claim that Liverpool had been heavily defeated given the power block votes cast by the union general secretaries. But by withdrawing the motion after the debate, but before the vote, the supporters of Liverpool’s struggle at least had the best of a bad deal.
But in the atmosphere engendered by Kinnock’s speech, “open season” had been declared on Liverpool City Council and Militant supporters in particular.