Chapter 2 – Labour in the Boom

The revolutionary wave that swept Western Europe at the end of World War II was, if anything, greater than that which followed the First World War. Capitalism, however, was saved by the reformist and Communist Party leaders who in Italy and France linked up with the capitalist parties in Popular Front governments. This created the political preconditions for the economic upswing of 1950-75.

In Britain, the radicalization of the masses was reflected in the coming to power of the first majority Labour government in 1945. The working class, particularly the mass of soldiers returning from the war, were determined never again to return to the privation and misery of the inter-war years. In Liverpool, Labour won eight out of eleven parliamentary seats. In the Scotland division Davey Logan was one of the only three candidates in the whole of Britain who was actually unopposed.

However, in the 1950 general election, with the disappointment, the Tories recovered. They remained the dominant power in the parliamentary field in Liverpool until 1964 when Labour gained four seats, with a spectacular 8 percent swing. By 1955 Labour controlled the Liverpool council for the first time. The Liverpool labor movement at this stage was dominated, as with the Labour Party and the unions nationally, by the right wing. The upswing of capitalism had reinforced the hold of the reformists, both over the Labour Party and the trade unions. A feature of the 1950s was the rebuilding of the inner-city areas and the transference of some of their inhabitants to the overflow towns like Kirkby and Skelmersdale. This tended to break down sectarian divisions. This process was reinforced by the general prosperity, which benefited the great majority of working people. Protestant councilors were still returned to the council even as late as the early 1970s, but their prominent spokesperson, Longbottom, was a fading force and a pale echo of what he had been in the past.

The Liverpool Labour Party was under the iron grip of the “Braddock machine”. Bessie Braddock was elected the MP for Exchange in 1945 while John Braddock became the leader of the Labour group on the council in 1948. Former Communist Party members, they both moved far to the right during the boom years, assembling a ruthless apparatus around themselves in the Labour Party. Membership was deliberately kept small; workers applying to join were told that they could not become members because the party was “full up”. Simon Fraser, the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party’s secretary at that time, has conceded that “the organization was poor and intentionally kept poor to keep out the ‘wrong sort of candidate’.

It was only in the Walton constituency that Marxism had any appreciable success in Liverpool at this stage. Year after year they argued the case for the general program of socialism, both at the level of the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party, which was then a joint body, and also at the national conferences of the Labour Party. In 1955 Ted Grant was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Walton. However, in anticipation of what happened in the 1980s, he was maneuvered out by the officials backed by the right-wing dominated National Executive Committee.

Walton Labour Party remained a stronghold for the forces of Marxism in the late 1950s. In 1959, George McCartney, a supporter of Socialist Fight, the forerunner of Militant, was selected as Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Walton. In this battle he easily defeated Woodrow Wyatt, then a supporter of Tribune but now a rabid right winger. Unfortunately, the 1959 general election, against all expectations, was a victory for the Tories. Despite a tremendous campaign, Labour failed to win Walton.

Among those who joined Walton Labour Party in 1957, thereby coming into contact with the ideas of Marxism, was Keith Dickenson, one of the five Militant Editorial Board members expelled from the Labour Party in 1983. He recalls how even in the difficult period of the 1950s, the Marxists on Merseyside say youth as the key to the future transformation of the labor movement:

Walton Labour Party Youth Section had started producing Rally at the end of 1957. I was made the business manager. Walton Youth Section was the only one that existed on the whole of Merseyside if not in Lancashire at this time, the Labour League of Youth having been wound up as a national organization by the right-wing dominated NEC in 1956.

Walton Youth Section was attended by people from all over the Merseyside area, and the editorial board of Rally reflected this. Pauline Knight, who later married Pat Wall, was on from the beginning. Pat Wall who had been secretary of Garston CLP at the age of 16 back in 1952, was in the army at the time and came onto the Rally‘s editorial board later. Other prominent driving people were Beryl Deane, who was the editorial and organizational driving force behind the magazine, and Don Hughes who was the main political guiding hand from Walton itself. The Rally rapidly built up sales during the years of the long post war boom, for the forces of Marxism. A large number of copies were sold in Liverpool itself, with a large distribution also in London, Tyneside and Swansea. (Interview with the Authors)

The main task for Marxists at this time was to defend their program and ideas against reformism and ultra-leftism. The forerunners of Militant, gathered round the journal Socialist Fight, argued against the ultra lefts on the outskirts of the labor movement who had written off the Labour Party because it was dominated by the right wing. Marxism predicted the inevitable decline of capitalism, and with this the intensification of the struggle between the classes. This in turn would be reflected in the growth of the left in the Labour Party and the trade unions.

Militant in the 1960s

The harbinger of this movement was the 1960 apprentices’ strike. One hundred thousand young engineers struck nationally for improved conditions and a shortening of the period of apprenticeship. Terry Harrison, the secretary of the Apprentices Committee on Merseyside, was already a supporter of the ideas of Marxism. Ted Mooney, the Vice-Chair of the committee, relates how he was drawn into activity:

The Young Socialists in Liverpool actively helped the apprentices, but they were only a handful of people. I took a leaflet into work to circulate. A mass meeting of apprentices was organized and they called for a strike. The mood was euphoric. The apprentices began touring the factories and shipyards en bloc and the strike on Merseyside really took off, strike committees were set up, and I became the Merseyside strike committee chairman. After two weeks of strike action, a substantial rise of 17 shillings (85 pence) a week and other concessions were won. The young workers clearly understood the nature of the strike and had to organize collections for the payment of hardship money. They had an instinctive understanding of the need for organization. (Interview with the Authors)

This understanding led Ted Mooney to become involved in the Walton Young Socialists, where he became attracted to the ideas of Marxism. Both Terry Harrison and Ted Mooney have over the subsequent decades played an important role in building support for the ideas of Militant in the city. Other young workers, such as Tony Mulhearn, were won to Militant’s ideas by long standing Marxists in the printing industry.

Contrary to the usual experience of Marxist groups in their formative periods, in which intellectuals and students usually play a predominant role, the rebirth of Marxism in Liverpool was soundly based on young workers. Right from the start, Militant’s supporters, although not known yet by that name, had a firm basis within the trade unions. With small forces they were able to lead a number of important strikes. In 1964 another apprentices’ strike broke out, under the leadership of Militant supporters in Liverpool. Upwards of 10,000 apprentices in Liverpool and Manchester came out in a week long stoppage which resulted in increases in wages and concessions on the length of the apprentices’ training. This was particularly the case in unions such as the printers, the building workers, and the electricians. It was from these forces that Militant drew its support when its paper was founded in October 1964. At this stage, the main task was one of propaganda and agitation for the ideas of socialism and Marxism within the labor movement. Whereas on a national plane Militant supporters worked first of all in the Labour Party Young Socialists, in Liverpool this was to run parallel with extremely successful work in the Labour Party and the trade unions.

The main pole of attraction for the Liverpool working class was to change at each stage in the struggle. In the 1960s, particularly in the battles against the Wilson government’s attempts to shackle the trade unions through its “In place of Strife” measures, it was the Trades Council which played a key role in organizing one-day strikes and other opposition.

Tony Mulhearn became a delegate to the Liverpool Trades Council in 1964, shortly after the election of the first Wilson government. During the following months and years sharp debates and clashes took place over the direction being taken by the Labour government. Bill Sefton, who in 1963 had assumed the leadership of the Labour group on the city council on the death of Jack Braddock, became president of the Trades council and Labour Party after the previous president Eric Heffer had been elected to parliament. Sefton strenuously defended the policies of the government on devaluation, import controls, incomes policy, etc.

In 1964 Labour also took control of the Liverpool City Council. A financial crisis was smoldering, which three years later was to explode around the issue of council rents. Discovering a large deficit in the housing revenue account, Sefton proposed that this be bridged by substantial rent increases of 10 shillings (50 pence), a 25 percent increase in some cases.

When the news of the proposed rent increases reached the hard pressed council tenants a howl of protest went up. They already paid about 25 percent of their average income in rents, the highest figure in Western Europe. The question for the left was how to give the mood of anger organized expression.

The Executive Committee of the Trades Council and Labour Party agreed to organize the tenants. Meetings of the tenants were held all over the city. Eddie Loyden led the opposition in the Labour group and, together with Tony Mulhearn, addressed many of the tenants’ meetings. Thousands of tenants were drawn into the struggle. The Trades Council and Labour Party was divided with a majority voting against the rent increases. Eventually Sefton was compelled to retreat, the rents were increased but by far smaller amounts than originally proposed. Militant supporters played a key rose in organizing the tenants, assisting them in setting up tenants’ associations, and drawing them towards the labor movement. These events proved to be an important dress rehearsal for the struggle against the Tories’ Housing Finance Act in 1971-3. In a development which reflected the tenants’ disillusionment with right-wing Labour, the Liberal Party got a foothold in Liverpool politics in the 1973 council elections.

The Bus Strike

1968 marked a new development in the leadership of the Trades Council and Labour Party. Eddie Loyden had been elected president for a third consecutive term, and the Wilson government was initiating a drive for cuts in public expenditure. Transport was one of the targets. The Liverpool bus workers were told one-man operation of buses would have to be accepted for a wage increase of 50 pence a week. The management claimed that they were prevented from offering more by Labour’s Incomes policy.

For the first time since 1926 they took strike action. All Liverpool’s 3000 bus workers were out. The Trades Council Executive, on which Militant supporters now had an important influence, met to see what support could be given. A resolution calling for a 24-hour all-out Liverpool strike in support of the bus workers was carried. The following day Tony Mulhearn addressed a mass meeting of the striking bus workers in the Liverpool stadium. He conveyed the decision of support and received warm applause. The day of the strike saw an estimated 50,000 workers take some form of action in support of the busmen. A demonstration of 8000 marched through Liverpool. The strike was in its ninth week, with enormous pressure being brought to bear on the employers, the Tory controlled council, to reach a settlement. Two weeks later the management withdrew the ultimatum to impose one-man buses and agreed to negotiate. The bus workers returned to work having secured what they saw as a great victory.

A major battle opened up in August 1969, when GEC-AEI-EEC announced 3,000 redundancies on Merseyside. Two Militant supporters, Ted Mooney and Tony Aitman, were on the Joint Action Committee along with Tony Byrne, which called a one-day strike on August 13, bringing 10,000 workers out. The workers were eventually defeated, with two of the three factories on Merseyside being closed.

In Place of Strife

By 1969 British capitalism found itself retreating on the world markets, profits were being squeezed. Ninety percent of strikes between 1960 and 1968 had been unofficial. Succumbing to the pressure from the baying hounds of Fleet Street and the Confederation of British Industry, the Wilson government produced a White Paper entitled “In Place of Strife”. This proposed making unofficial industrial action a criminal offence.

The publication of the White Paper by Labour Minister Barbara Castle provoked uproar in the workplaces. This opposition was reflected on the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party, which received a deluge of resolutions calling for organized opposition to the White Paper.

Mass meetings of shop stewards and demonstrations were organized. Eddie Loyden, as president, addressed numerous meetings. Militant supporters produced resolutions and statements articulating the opposition to the White Paper, but also explaining theoretically how the crisis of capitalism compelled the right wing down the road of attacking the unions.

In March 1969 a demonstration of 20,000 marched through Liverpool demanding the withdrawal of the White Paper. Such was the pressure from below that the TUC General Council was forced to come out against the White Paper. Eventually in June, the government abandoned its proposed anti-union legislation. The significance of the retreat was not lost on the ruling class, who blasted out in the Daily Mirror: “Power resides, not in 10 Downing Street, but in the headquarters of the TUC.”

As if to prove again the axiom that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce, behind the scenes of these great events the right wing on the Labour Party NEC were working to sabotage the Trades Council and Labour Party. These moves foreshadowed the right-wing attack on the Liverpool District Labour Party sixteen years later.

Acting on a bogus complaint made in 1962 – seven years earlier – they moved to split the joint body, hoping thereby to remove the pressure of the radicalized unions away from the Labour Party. The resistance in the Liverpool labor movement, like in 1985, was almost unanimous, but the right wing ignored the voice of the membership. By bureaucratic, blackmailing maneuvers, they forced the delegates to accept separation – on pain of placing themselves outside the labor movement. As with the attacks in the 1980s, the right wing welcomed the split believing it would ensure their control of the city council and a period of calm. Events rudely shattered these illusions. They were to learn that while right-wing sabotage may slow down or derail the movement of the working class for a time, the will of the labor movement, if correctly organized, will eventually reassert itself.

As a result of the Wilson government’s actions in attempting to placate the representatives of a diseased, crisis ridden capitalism by attacking workers’ wages, conditions and their organizations, the Tories were swept to power in June 1970, against the forecasts of the opinion polls. A Labour majority of 96 was converted into a Tory majority of 30. When pressed to explain the result, Wilson said: “People could not tell the difference between Tory and Labour.” By then unemployment had reached 600,000.

The Fisher Bendix and Lucas Occupations

In December 1971, the Thorn Engineering Combine announced the closure of its Fisher Bendix plant in Kirkby, which employed 600 workers. The workers decided to fight by occupying the plant. The Trades Council immediately moved to organize support and a statement prepared by Tony Mulhearn and Terry Harrison was presented to an all-Liverpool mass meeting of shop stewards. This statement called for industrial and financial support and linked the Fisher Bendix workers’ struggle with the need to defeat the Tory government. The statement was enthusiastically supported by the delegates and shop stewards. Collections throughout Merseyside were begun and workers began picketing the plant. Months of intense activity, during which Fisher Bendix became a cause célèbre, ended in victory: the plant was saved by a new owner.

The occupation a CAV Lucas, a motor component plant employing 1600 workers, lasted for four months in 1972. The determination of the workforce was unfortunately not matched by the leadership nationally, although people like Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones were giants compared to the trade-union leaders of the 1980s. The company was determined to succeed, and after a heroic fight the CAV workers were compelled to accept defeat.

Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath represented the hard nosed business wing of the Tory Party, and was determined to curb the trade unions and to cut back public spending. The main vehicles for securing these objectives were the Industrial relations Act and the Housing Finance Act. Like its forerunner, Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife, the publication of the Industrial Relations Bill provoked a storm of protest throughout the labor movement, particularly on Merseyside.

In a foretaste of the differences in the 1980s, Militant supporters came into conflict with Communist Party members on the Trades Council, who opposed linking of the campaign against the Bill with the call for the defeat of the Tories and the return of a Labour government committed to a socialist program.

In February 1971 a demonstration of 35,000, the largest at that time since 1945, marched through the streets of Liverpool to a rally at the Pier Head. Under such pressure from Liverpool and many other industrial areas, the TUC General Council was pushed into calling the greatest demonstration in its history, 250,000 workers marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square on February 21, 1971. The government was compelled to retreat in 1972, releasing Dockers who had been imprisoned under the Industrial Relations Act. This capitulation was brought about by the TUC General Council even calling for a one-day general strike later in 1972 three building workers, the “Shrewsbury Pickets” were jailed under ancient conspiracy laws.

Running parallel with the campaign against the Tory laws was the battle being waged against the Housing Finance Act. To a greater extent than the movement of 1967-8, council tenants in their thousands moved into action against the Tory government’s proposals to double rents over a three-year period.

Again the Trades Council moved into action. Ted Mooney prepared a pamphlet repudiating paint by paint the Tory argument on “Fair Rents”. The Trades Council and the Tenants’ Associations jointly arranged meetings throughout the city to explain the implications of the Tory proposals. The Liverpool Trades Council was the body which organized and drew together the tenant’s associations and the organs of the Labour movement. Reflecting this pressure, the Liverpool Borough Labour Party, although controlled by the right wing and virtually dormant for three years, came out against the Bill.

When the vote for implementation of the Act took place in the council chamber, 27 Labour councilors voted with the Tories in favor, 21 Labour councilors voted against. Such was the revulsion against the right wing that the 21, including Ted Mooney and Eddie Loyden, formed their own Labour group and began meeting separately. The campaign to defy the Act continued, culminating in the imprisonment of some Kirkby tenants.

But the end of the Heath government was in sight. In 1972 the miners struck over wages and achieved a great victory. In the winter of 1973-4, faced with a second miners’ strike, Heath went to the electorate on the slogan of “who runs the country” and lost the election. One of Harold Wilson’s first acts on becoming Prime Minister, recognizing the consciousness of the labor movement, was to repeal the Housing Finance Act and the Industrial Relations Act.

The decade between 1964-74 was a turbulent period of struggle for the Merseyside labor movement during which Militant supporters and close allies on the left made a powerful impact on events. This prepared the basis for the historic events of 1983 and after. Another factor in the struggle of the decade 1973-84 was the rise of the Liberals in Liverpool. They became the largest party in the city council in 1973, the year after Labour’s right wing joined with the Tories to implement the Housing Finance Act.

The 1974-9 Labour Government

With the onset of the world economic recession of 1974-5, the Labour government of Harold Wilson came into conflict with workers. Instead of carrying out socialist policies, the Labour leadership, attempting to manage capitalism in a period of crisis, embarked on attacks on workers’ living standards, in particular through a series of pay policies.

In the winter of 1977 the firefighters came out on strike in what became a bitter dispute, with the army being used as strike breakers. A number of firefighters were attracted to Marxism on Merseyside during the dispute, including Terry Fields.

The following year saw another important dispute for the development of Militant’s role. The closure of the Western Ship Repairers yard in Birkenhead led to a picket by the workforce. Militant supporters in the area were actively involved from the outset and effectively led the dispute. The position raised by Militant supporters was adopted by the action committee and the workers at mass meetings. This included the demand for the Labour government to nationalize the yard, under workers’ control and management, to protect jobs.

Many mass meetings were held, and two demonstrations were organized through Birkenhead. The right-wing Labour leadership, however, refused to act. Although the yard was not saved, the role played by Militant supporters in the dispute, and the taking up of Militant’s ideas by the workers in struggle, marked a qualitative development of the intervention of Marxism in industrial disputes on Merseyside.

At the 1978 Labour Party Conference a young Liverpool worker, Terry Duffy, the delegate from Wavertree Labour Party, moved the crucial resolution which for the first time clearly committed the Labour Party Conference to reject policies of wage restraint.

In the general election the following year, Tony Mulhearn was selected as Labour’s candidate for the Tory seat of Crosby. Despite the Tories’ sweeping victory nationally, he polled over 15,000 votes, a creditable 26 percent of the poll.

As a result of the experiences of the working class of Merseyside, which felt the onset of economic downturn before it seriously affected other parts of the country, Marxism began to grow through the 1970s within the labor and trade union movement. A new generation came onto the scene in the late 1970s, prominent among them being Derek Hatton. A perspective was then worked out for the likely course of which it was concluded that the city council and the District Labour Party would play a crucial role. Only the Marxists had a worked-out program and perspective that could prepare the Liverpool working class for the mighty events that were about to unfold in the 1980s.