Following the May 1987 elections, the Liverpool Council Labour group had a much more right-wing complexion than the group evicted from office by the Law Lords. There had been a marked shift to the right in the trade-union officialdom, particularly in the Transport and General Workers Union, where Bobby Owens, the ex-left regional secretary, was almost as obsessed as Kinnock about the influence of Militant. The weight of this machine was brought to bear to assist Peter Kilfoyle in “constructing” a “moderate” Labour group with “realistic” policies.
The right wing were successful in having one of their own, Harry Rimmer, former deputy leader of the now defunct Merseyside County Council, install as the new leader of the Liverpool Labour group. But like Banquo’s ghost sitting in Macbeth’s place, the debarred 47 and their achievements haunted Labour’s right wing. Their militant stance had left an indelible imprint on the consciousness of the whole of the Liverpool labor movement and checked the right wing’s attempt to carry through cuts. Tony Byrne addressed the first meeting of the new council on behalf of the 47 debarred councilors. Thirty of the 47 councilors were also present, including Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. In a speech enthusiastically supported by the Labour benches, Tony Byrne detailed the record of the council since 1983, of 5400 new homes built and the securing of at least 10,000 jobs. He declared: “The way to thank the 47 is to commit yourselves to the same policies” (Independent 20 May). Rimmer, to the annoyance of the debarred councilors and their supporters, while claiming that the 47 had been harshly treated, also pointed to an unspecified “error of judgment” on their part. Nevertheless, two days later contracts for the building of 800 new homes, 20 refurbishment schemes and 15 demolition projects, which had been frozen by the “caretaker Liberal administration”, were ratified by the Labour council. The Liberals vehemently objected to this step but there was jubilation in the contracting industry, with an estimated 2000 jobs saved. Tenants who now could move into decent housing conditions instead of being forever trapped in the hell of high rise flats were similarly delighted.
The 1987 General Election
Hostilities on the council front were temporarily suspended as the Liverpool labor movement girded itself for the forthcoming general election battle. As in 1983 the press predicted Labour defeats in Liverpool, particularly in the key marginal of Broadgreen. In a painstaking examination of the electoral entrails, the Independent (15 May) concluded with an analysis that was shared by most of the press: “Richard Pine [Liberal candidate for Broadgreen], 34, is virtually certain to defeat Terry Fields, Militant-supporting Labour MP at Liverpool Broadgreen.”
They had not taken into account the lasting effect which the might struggles between 1983 and 1987 had had on all strata of the population. This was the main factor in the sweeping victory for Labour in Liverpool and indeed the Merseyside area on June 11. However, Labour appeared to have an uphill task in Broadgreen where, unlike in 1983, the Alliance partners fought a “united campaign”. Moreover, the Liberals were starting from a position of holding 13 out of 15 council seats in the constituency. It would require an election campaign on a much higher plane than even the victory in 1983 for Labour to guarantee victory. The Broadgreen and Liverpool labor movement were not found wanting. The local Broadgreen Labour Party had been suspended for more than 12 months before the election, and its officers were under the threat of expulsion, yet there could not have been a greater contrast between the campaign in Broadgreen and Labour’s disastrous national campaign. The leadership of the Labour Party relied predominantly on “media” and “photo opportunities”. The Broadgreen campaign was a model, both in political content and organization.
Mass canvassing on a higher scale than 1983 covered every part of the constituency, detailed discussions on policy taking place on the doorsteps. The constituency was canvassed many times before June 11. There was no poster “war” this time, unlike 1983: the opposition parties were simply crushed by the sheer numbers of Labour posters displayed throughout the constituency. Even in so-called Liberal or Tory areas new posters had to be ordered at least twice. Six special leaflets on youth, women, health, education, the Tories’ threatened poll tax and other issues were distributed throughout the constituency.
The consciousness of the Liverpool workers was indicated by the reply of an older woman to a Daily Telegraph reporter who asked if she was still voting for Terry Fields even though he was a “Militant”: “He’s just a good socialist… like we used to have in the old days.” (Militant 19 June)
Dozens of workplace meetings were organized and meetings of trade-union activists were held at Fords Halewood, Green Lane Cleansing Depot, Plessy, GMBATU Branch 5, FBU Bank Hall, Edge Lane Bus Depot. Over 1000 workers were addressed by Terry Fields in special meetings of this character during the campaign. In addition there was a magnificent 400-strong meeting addressed by Tony Benn, and 1000 attended an electrifying meeting addressed by Arthur Scargill. Arthur Scargill and most of the Labour candidates spoke to a 2000-strong audience in the Philharmonic Hall. One of the greatest ovations at this meeting was when Tony Byrne introduced surcharged councilor Tony Mulhearn, who wasn’t even on the platform, to the audience.
The capitalist parties reworked the theme of “Militant extremism” in the course of the campaign. Militant was attacked from all sides, not the least by Neil Kinnock, in an infamous American presidential-style broadcast during the campaign. Learning absolutely nothing from the previous two years, Neil Kinnock’s advisers had come to the astonishing conclusion that, in the midst of the general election, “bashing the left” would see him into No. 10 Downing Street. The media egged him on with the clear intention of then presenting Labour as a divided party.
His attacks on Liverpool City Council were similar to Michael Foot’s attempts in 1983 to distance himself publicly from the Labour candidate for Bradford North, Pat Wall. Kinnock was to make just one fleeting visit to Liverpool, to an old people’s home in the Mossley Hill constituency.
Labour workers in Liverpool barely concealed their disgust at a Labour leadership which all but openly sabotaged Labour’s campaign in the city. Neil Kinnock gave the impression that he would not lose too much sleep if Liverpool Labour, and particularly Terry Fields, were to go down to defeat.
Labour’s national campaign was absolutely ruinous. The razzmatazz, all tinsel and very little content, was of course praised to the skies by the media. The Labour leadership’s occasional excursion into the field of policy was catastrophic. Long before the election Kinnock and Hattersley had announced that they would reverse the Tories’ tax cuts, in effect saying, “vote for us and we’ll increase your taxes”. The lessons of the Presidential election in the USA in 1984 were completely lost on the labor Leadership. The “courageous” Mondale had fought on precisely such a program, and had lost every state except two, his home state of Minnesota and the District of Colombia.
The Labour leadership’s campaign, designed to win the middle class, had exactly the opposite effect. The skilled workers and the houseowners were alienated. The number of skilled workers voting Tory increased from 38 percent in 1983 to 42 percent in the June 1987 General Election. Even in comparison to previous election campaigns under the stewardship of the right wing, Labour’s performance nationally was abysmal. Ruthless control was exercised from the top. There was very little canvassing, with few election leaflets and the “public meetings” were ticket-only affairs with audiences that were meticulously vetted by Labour Party officials. A media campaign, little different from those conducted in America by the Democratic Party, was supposed to usher in a Labour victory.
In Liverpool, however, when Labour candidates turned to the media it was usually to counter the distortions of their opponents. It was to be on the doorstep and in the factories and workplaces that Labour would get its message across in the teeth of the media’s colossal anti-Labour campaign.
National Alliance leaders attempted to bolster their candidates in the city on “whistle stop” tours. Owen claimed Labour had “governed with such arrogance and contempt for the people of Liverpool” (The Times 23 May). Cyril Smith also lumbered into town to launch a broadside “against the Militant influenced Labour strongholds in the city”. He stated that “We have our eyes particularly on Terry Fields’ 3800 majority in Liverpool Broadgreen” (Sunday Times 2 May). However, when Cyril Smith stepped into a hotel lift it refused to take off – just like the Alliance campaign in the city in the next few weeks! On one of his two visits Liberal leader David Steel informed the Echo (26 May) that the Alliance “have decided to focus upon Merseyside as a prime example of Labour’s extremism at its worst”.
Even the Tories discussed “a plan for Mrs. Thatcher to drop in on Merseyside” but this never materialized. Try as they might the “extremist” card made little impression in the city. Although the Guardian (29 May) declared: “Militant’s man is the issue in battle for Liverpool Broadgreen”, the complete ineffectiveness of the Liberals’ red was underlined by a Granada television poll which revealed that only two percent in the Broadgreen constituency thought that “Militant was an issue”. This could be accounted for by two factors. On the one side, there was a bitter anti-Tory mood, which was expressed in outright hatred of Thatcher herself. Sometimes this was revealed in the most unlikely fashion. Thus in the midst of the election campaign the Echo featured a 57-year-old former unemployed man who had set up his own business making t-shirts and baseball caps. One T-shirt, with a “Maggie No Go Zone” logo, sold like hot cakes. The owner of the company, to be fair, had also produced a pro-Thatcher cap but said, “You try selling those around here. I’ve had a few orders from down South, but only a few.” On the basis of his sales he declared: “If my caps are anything to go by then the sales show an overwhelming result – the Tories are going to lose this election!” Although not exactly “scientifically based”, it was more accurate than the usually fiddled opinion polls as far as Liverpool was concerned.
The other factor which determined the complete ineffectiveness of the “anti-Militant” campaign of the Tories and Liberals was that the mass of the electorate were now impervious given the deluge of such campaigns in the previous four years.
Labour’s opponents did not hesitate to use the slightest pretext to throw mud at Labour and particularly to present the Marxists as “proponents of violence”. Thus a few days before the election the Sunday Express (7 June) front page headline screamed “Labour’s Bullies in New Terror”. It declared:
The uncanny silence of Labour’s hard-left exploded into uproar yesterday with a plea from an Alliance candidate for police protection against Militant thugs. Richard Pine, Alliance candidate in Liverpool’s Broadgreen – scene of one of the most bitterly fought election campaigns in Britain – wants protection for his canvassers.
Pine had alleged that he had been forced to order his supporters ” not to go out alone in areas of the constituency where gangs of Militant thugs are gathering”. This hysteria had been prompted by a lobby, organized outside one of Pine’s election meetings, by the Labour Party Young Socialists, some of whom were dressed as a pantomime horse. This was in response to an earlier comment from Richard Pine who, frustrated at the ineffectiveness of his campaign, characterized Labour voters as “donkeys”. Attempting to introduce a little humor into the campaign, Labour’s youth were now denounced by theSunday Express as “40 thugs [who] tried to kick down a school door and get at the alliance supporters”. The Echo (5 June) carried Labour’s rejoinder to this:
Broadgreen’s Labour candidate Terry Fields said his supporters took a pantomime donkey to a Liberal meeting. Mr. Fields said “the Alliance candidate has made an ass of himself. The donkey was there to make a lighthearted protest. Richard Pine made a mistake in talking of ‘donkey voters’. Ee-Yor-To know better than to criticize voters like that.”
Even the Tory candidate in Broadgreen, Mark Seddon, was forced to complain publicly about the Alliance’s smear campaign. According to the Echo (9 June), he claimed that “an Alliance supporter has been telling voters that his family has ties with the Trotskyists”. Moreover, he was so disgusted at the Alliance’s tactics that he “blasted recent Alliance claims of Militant intimidation: ‘I have seen Militants around, and they have been good humored. But the Liberals claim they are being intimidated by them. I believe it is a cheap publicity stunt”. For once a Tory was telling the truth!
The press was forced to record the bedrock of support for Militant in the Liverpool area. Thus following the Broadgreen rally where Arthur Scargill had spoken, a Times reporter had gone into a pub with “plenty of confirmed Fields supporters”. When asked to comment about Militant these workers declared, “They promised to build thousands of new houses in the rotten slums and create thousands of new jobs for people on their knees for work and they did it” (The Times 3 June). The reporter then asked:
What about the cost of all those controversial loans from French, Swiss and Japanese banks to get around Whitehall’s spending restrictions that have now landed Liverpool with a debt that some estimate at about £800 million and crippling interest repayments?, “Look pal”, a large man said not unkindly, “everyone in this bloody pub is up to their eyes in debt and looking for work. Who gives a stuff how much we owe the gnomes of Zurich?”
The Liberals’ final masterpiece was a leaflet showing a photograph of Terry Fields with Derek Hatton, over the comment, “What you see is what you get”, and absolutely no political comment. This was distributed the day before polling day. Thus there could be no misunderstanding as to what the choice was. Labour’s candidate was clearly identified with the stand of the heroic 47 councilors. He was a well-known Marxist who stood on a clear socialist program and on a slogan of “a workers’ MP on a workers’ wage”.
As the general election results flashed up on the television screened on the night of June 11 and 12, a pall of gloom descended on the working-class areas of Britain. Only small gains were made, leaving the Tories clearly in power. Nationally the Tories percentage of the vote was virtually the same, at 42.3 percent, as the 42.4 percent they got in their 1983 landslide. But Labour only inched up from the disastrous 27.6 percent in 1983 to 30.8 percent. But the mood in Liverpool was entirely different. Labour’s share of the vote increased in Liverpool by a colossal 9.5 percent compared 1983. The Tories, second in 1983, were reduced to third behind the Alliance. The Financial Times (13 June) commented: “Their share of the citywide poll dropped by a massive twelve points to only 17 percent.” The Alliance, who were eagerly looking to profit from a Tory collapse, increased their share of the poll only by 2.5 points to 25.5 percent. Massive swings towards Labour were recorded in all Liverpool seats. The 57 percent share of the vote won by Labour in Liverpool was the party’s best ever result in the city, comfortably surpassing even the result of 1945 which gave Labour a landslide victory nationally.
Eric Heffer stormed to victory in Walton with a magnificent 64.4 percent of the vote. Walton had been a marginal seat when he won it for Labour in 1964! He had been vilified by Labour’s right for his courageous defense of the Liverpool Labour movement. He had been stitched up in the elections to the National Executive Committee at the 1985 Labour Party Conference by the “soft left” who never forgave him for his public display of opposition to their idol Kinnock. Yet the Liverpool working-class rewarded Eric Heffer, someone who unflinchingly championed their cause, with this large vote of confidence. Eddie Loyden, who enjoyed a similar reputation among the Liverpool working class, saw his Garston majority “rocket from 4002 to a substantial 13,777” (Echo June 12, 1987). Victory was all that much sweeter in Garston in view of the fact that the defeated Tory candidate was Paul Feather, one of the leading lights of the “Liverpool Against Militant” (LAM). He was “lamblike” in defeat, while Eddie Loyden declared: “We fought on the policies that affect the people of Liverpool. The voters saw through the smears against the hard left.” (Echo June 12, 1987). Bob Parry in Riverside also won a massive 73.2 percent of the vote and Bob Wareing in West Derby 65.3. It was in Broadgreen, however, where Labour scored its greatest triumph. This had been a Tory marginal seat in 1983 and was the seat of mainly owner-occupiers. Terry Fields increased his majority from 3800 to 6047 with 48.6 percent of the vote. Little wonder that Eric Heffer could claim that the Labour vote was no longer counted but “weighed” in Liverpool!
The five Liverpool Labour MPs although Bob Wareing wavered at the later stages, had remained unshakable in defense of their council comrades. On June 11 they were rewarded with the most outstanding victory for Labour in the whole of Britain. Even Alton, the Liberal Chief Whip saw his Mossley Hill majority slashed. Only defecting Conservatives managed to save his skin. In the 17 Merseyside constituencies Labour increased its vote by 72,477 (a 22 percent increase), while the Alliance dropped 4505 votes and the Tories lost 43,021, a 15 percent drop. If the swing to Labour from the Tories had been the same across the country as in Liverpool this would have meant 133 seats fewer for the Tories in the new parliament. Well known Tories such ad Lynda Chalker, Malcolm Rifkind, George Younger, William Waldegrave, Winston Churchill, Edwina Currie, Peter Bottomley, Terry Dicks and Geoffrey Dickens would all have lost their seats. Labour would have won an extra 116 seats which would have put Neil Kinnock into number 10 Downing Street.
The contrast between the spectacular performance of the Liverpool labor movement and the dismal performance of the right wing’s campaign elsewhere was too transparent to pass over in complete silence. The immediate reaction of the Post (12 June) to the Liverpool result was clear: “Liverpool voters gave Labour a big pat on the back last night.” Gerald Kaufman, right-wing front bench spokesperson, had the grace to point to “the splendid victory in Liverpool”. Even Thatcher, according to the Echo on June 12 “had a special word about Liverpool. She accused the city’s Labour Party of stifling private enterprise, but admitted they had the voters on their side.” The right wing, however, were far from pleased at the triumph of the left, particularly of the Marxists.
Indeed, a Guardian correspondent present at Labour’s Walworth Road headquarters, as the results came through reported June 12 that, a “Labour Party manager” responded to the victories of the left with the comment “it’s been a good night for the nutters”. This “fraternal attitude” was extended by the right to their feeble attempt at explaining the election results. Implicit in the comments of the leader Neil Kinnock also was the idea that the “ignorant” working class were really responsible for Thatcher’s third victory: “many people, for reasons best known to themselves, have voted to maintain divisions”. Yet the architects of Labour’s defeat was the leadership of the Labour Party itself. No real alternative to the Tories had been spelled out by Labour nationally. This had however been done in Broadgreen, in Coventry South East, where Dave Nellist was the Labour candidate, in Bradford North, where Pat Wall was the candidate, and in Southwark and Bermondsey, where John Bryan fought an excellent campaign.
The campaign in these four seats was entirely different to that conducted by Labour’s national leadership. Kinnock did make some telling agitational points on the health service, on unemployment, poverty, etc. But there was no attempt to explain the nature of the crisis of world and British capitalism, as the Marxists had done. Militant had consistently warned, even before the Stock Market crash of October 1987, of an impending economic catastrophe on the basis of capitalism. Even former Tory Minister, Sir Ian Gilmour, had warned in the Commons before the election: “There is therefore a great deal of consolation for the Opposition and the Alliance in the fact that they are going to lose the next election. There will be a nasty crisis in the next Parliament and the opposition parties can count themselves lucky that not they but my Right Honorable Friends will be dealing with it.” But the question on the lips of workers on the doorsteps and in the factories was “how would Labour do better?”
Subsequent analyses of voting intentions have shown that the majority believed that the Tories would handle the economy better than Labour. Labour leaders struck a high moral tone, believing that an appeal to the so-called “have-lots” on behalf of the “have-nots” would do the trick.
Capitalist commentators, and Labour’s right wing, maintained that the secret of Thatcher’s success lay in her naked appeal to homeowners, shareholders and so-called “property owning democracy”. How then to explain Terry Fields’ victory in Broadgreen, where nearly 73 percent of constituencies own their own houses? The right wing also put the defeat in London down to the so-called “loony left”. Alf Dubbs in Battersea, Eric Deakins in Walthamstow and Nick Raynsford in Fulham were, it was claimed, defeated because of the so-called “yuppie factor”. In making this claim the right wing performed an amazing somersault. The main reason they gave in shifting Labour’s policies to the right was in order to “win the middle ground”. Now the “yuppies” to whom Labour’s policies were meant to appeal, were given as the main factor for the defeat.
Yet in those seats where Labour stood on the left, and particularly on a Marxist platform, the middle-class was won to the banner of Labour. Good results for the left, and particularly for Marxist candidates, were not just achieved in Liverpool but in other areas also. Thus Dave Nellist recorded the biggest pro-Labour swing in the West Midlands, 5.2 percent from the Tories. The campaign, including a rally attended by 750 from all over Coventry, at which the main speakers were Tony Benn and Dave Nellist, contributed to the success of the other Coventry seats, which all recorded big swings to Labour. Contrast this with the dismal performance in right-wing dominated Birmingham. In Birmingham Northfield, formerly a Labour seat, where the Labour candidate was the right-wing EETPO guru John Speller, there was a swing of 0.34 percent to the Tories. In Roy Hattersley’s Sparkbrook seat there was a 1.5 percent swing from the Tories to the SDP! This cannot be ascribed to the “homeowning” and “skilled worker” factors. These were just as much in evidence in Coventry South East as in Birmingham. And yet the swing to Labour in Coventry was more than three times that of Birmingham.
The question was posed in the aftermath of the election: if the policies of the right wing were so attractive to working people why didn’t the working class flood out in Sparkbrook to vote for Roy Hattersley? The turnout in this seat was barely 63 percent compared with turnouts of almost 73 percent in Coventry South-East 75.9 percent in Broadgreen and even 70 percent in inner city Bermondsey. But what a contrast there was between Labour’s performance in Liverpool and in right-wing dominated Birmingham! In Birmingham there was an average increase of 1202 in the Labour vote, whereas in Liverpool there was an average 4436 increase per constituency. Militant commented: “We eagerly await the comments of Roy Hattersley and his right-wing agent Peter Kilfoyle about the Merseyside results.”
The right wing had wasted the enormous political capital that had accumulated to the labor movement from the miners’ strike. This was reflected in the support for the retention of the political funds by the unions. The Tories had attempted to cripple the Labour Party financially. They compelled the unions to ballot on their retention, hoping that t he vote would go against and the unions would therefore cut off Labour’s financial lifeline. But 90 percent voted in favor of retaining their political fund. Moreover, some unions which did not have political funds decided to set them up! The Tories’ attempts to cripple the Labour Party rebounded on them. This heightened political awareness was a product of the miners’ strike which, by laying bare the brutal reality of Thatcherite capitalism, had politicized the working class like no other event in decades. This represented colossal potential support for Labour within the trade unions. Yet only 43 percent of trade unionists voted Labour in the general election. A campaign along socialist lines would have mobilized a big majority of trade unionists to vote in their class interest and against the parties of big business. But the class issues were never raised. The defeats in Walthamstow, Fulham, and Ealing did not arise from any major “demographic changes”, as the Labour right feebly claimed. Even the most zealous Tory estate agent could not have wrought such changes to guarantee the victory of the Tories in these seats. Labour’s losses were due mainly to the massive rate rises of 62 percent, 50 percent and 65 percent that had been imposed by Labour councils in these areas, in line with the “dented shield” philosophy of Neil Kinnock, Jack Cunningham and Jack Straw.
They had recommended a 60 percent increase in rates for the Liverpool City Council in 1985. If the much reviled “Militants” of Liverpool had heeded this advice, Labour in this city would have faced the same fate as Eric Deakins in Walthamstow and Nick Raynsford in Fulham.
After its initial dismay at Militant’s success in Liverpool, the Echo once more attempted to throw dust in its readers’ eyes. On the one hand, the defeat of Keva Coombes in Hyndburn and Sylvia Renilson in Pendle was due to their alleged association with the Militant, yet both were well known opponents of Militant. On the other hand, the victory in Liverpool supposedly had nothing to do with Militant. The Echo (12 June) declared: “The increased votes for Liverpool’s Labour MPs are less a sign of support for Militant revolution than a cry of despair and anger.” But Terry Fields was much nearer the mark when he declared, “The people of Broadgreen have sent a message to the rest of Britain tonight. A message nobody can ignore. The Tories are the Millionaire Tendency. I am with the majority tendency, the working class.”
Undoubtedly, the profound anti-Tory mood was the most dominant factor among Liverpool workers. But the colossal swing from Tory to Labour cannot be ascribed to this alone. To some extent, the same factors were present in Merseyside as in Scotland. The struggle of Liverpool City Council had the same effect as a large stone dropped in a pond. The ripples from Liverpool reached out to touch most areas of Merseyside. The 47 were seen not just as champions of the interests of the area, but as people who had successfully extracted concessions from the Tory government and had therefore been persecuted by them. They raised sections of the population from their knees and inspired many who might otherwise have stood aside from the struggle in despair and resignation.
Similarly, the big swing to Labour in Scotland had very little to do with the influence of Kinnock’s polities, contrary to the claims of his attorneys in the Labour Coordinating Committee. The heroic struggle of the Caterpillar workers, occupying their factory against closure, played a very similar role to that of the Liverpool City Council, both before and during the election. The whole of the Scottish labor movement was compelled to come behind the Caterpillar workers, although Neil Kinnock, as during the miners’ strike, only gave very lukewarm support very late in the day. Their struggle was perceived, by the middle class included, as the last ditch attempt to maintain the semblance of a manufacturing base in Scotland. It was this that resulted in the decimation of the Tories throughout Scotland on June 11. The victories in Liverpool and Scotland were an indication of what Labour could have achieved nationally if the leadership had put the full weight of the labor movement behind the miners and their heroic struggle.
The election revealed not so much a “North-South divide”, as the Labour leadership argued, but a colossal class polarization. It was this that accounted for the crushing of the SDP. Roy Jenkins, the inspirer of the SDP, had once compared the launch of his party to an airplane taking off. In the general election the plane crash-landed, ditching Roy Jenkins in Hillhead, Shirley Williams, who lost in Cambridge, and Bill Rodgers, who was defeated in Milton Keynes. Only one of the original Gang of Four remained, David Owen, who subsequently constituted himself as a Gang of One, breaking away from an alliance with the Liberals. Even in London the class polarization was evident. While the Tories’ total vote increased by 163,035 across the capital, Labour’s vote also went up, by 105,353. The Alliance was crushed between the millstones of Labour and the Tories, losing 81,887 votes in the capital.
In the avalanche of hostile criticisms of Liverpool, occasionally a shaft of light would appear in the press. In the Sunday Times (5 July), Professor Ben Pimlott confessed, “Blame for defeat cannot simply be laid at the door of the hard left. Witness the remarkable swing to Labour in Liverpool.”
Indeed Terry Fields’ successful campaign in Broadgreen and particularly his call for Labour representatives to accept no more than the average wage of a skilled worker, found an echo well beyond the borders of Merseyside. An article in the Daily Telegraph (8 May) pointed out that Terry Fields “does not even accept all his £18,500 salary but keeps his pay in line with that of a firefighter – a job he did for 26 years”. In response to this a Tory-votingTelegraph reader from Essex wrote to Terry Fields to:
wholeheartedly applaud the attitude you take. It’s a refreshing change to hear of an MP with the courage of his convictions and to practice what he preaches. If more MPs did the same instead of caning the taxpayer for all they can get, fiddling car mileage etc., etc., Parliament and indeed the country as a whole would be a lot better place… If you ever put up for my constituency you could rely on my vote and that of many of my friends… Good lick and best wishes for the future.
This merely underlined the case of Marxism: if Labour were to adopt a clear socialist position and Labour representatives to live the lifestyle of those they sought to represent, many Tories, not to say Liberals, could be swung behind the banner of Labour.
New Council Crisis
No sooner had the election clamor died down than a new crisis loomed on the council front. Despite the new “moderate” tone struck by Harry Rimmer, the government was impervious to all Liverpool’s pleas for concessions. Lord Young, a clone of Thatcher, spoke of money “wasted” in Liverpool. But the budget gap for 1988-9 would be of the order of £51 million, which would mean big cuts.
All the gains of the previous four years were once more threatened by the Tories. Would the new Labour group stand up to the Tories as had the previous one? The omens were not favorable. At a seminar for new councilors, chief officers warned the councilors that their first duty was to uphold the law, not to carry out their election manifestos. The new right-wing dominated Labour group moved immediately to take back some of the concessions given in the previous period. There was growing concern in all departments over the delay in filling vacancies. Disputes broke out in the careers service, leisure Centers and in the City Estates Department.
In a sharp departure from the previous council, Rimmer and other right-wing chairs of committees, in the words of one council worker “listen to management and deal with the workers”, as opposed to the old council which “listened to the workers and dealt with management”. In the final ten minutes of one labor group meeting, the right wing decided to withdraw funding for three of the four sabbatical positions of elected Student Union presidents at Sandown, South Mersey and City FE colleges. This effectively amounted to the sack. One of those dealt with in this way was NUS Executive member, Colette Williams. The right wing were nibbling at the gains of the previous four years: they wished to travel down the same road as other Labour councilors throughout Britain who were following Kinnock’s advice and passing Tory cuts on to the workforce and council tenants. All those who had abandoned Liverpool in the rate-capping battle in 1985 were now busily carrying through cuts. In Islington Margaret Hodge presided over cuts, while in Haringey it was members of the Labour Coordinating Committee who proposed amendments calling for a three percent cut to ensure that the council “acted within the law”. Both Hodge and the Haringey leaders, as with many other councilors in London, claimed that they were carrying out “socialist cuts”.
In Haringey, Bernie Grant voted with the ex-lefts for cuts. He was bitterly denounced by black and white workers at the council meeting. Subsequently, in an interview with Darcus Howe on the television program Bandung File, he tried to justify this policy by claiming that he had not, and never would, vote for cuts which affected the council’s “anti-racist” policies. The clear implication was that anything which adversely affected black people Bernie Grant would oppose. This was an attempt to ingratiate himself with blacks by giving the impression that he was still championing their cause, despite his vote in favor of a cuts budget. Cuts will bear down heavily on the poor. Among the “black population” there is a higher proportion of poor people, council tenants facing massive rent increases and cuts in council services, than among the white population. Moreover, Bernie Grant’s attempt to differentiate between the effects of cuts on blacks or whites is also extremely dangerous, opening up the danger of splits between different sections of the working class. In reality, having climbed to power as an MP, Bernie Grant placed this above his responsibility to the black and white workers in Haringey who put him there in the first place.
The obstacle to Rimmer following a similar path in Liverpool was the colossal achievements of the previous council and the martyred 47. The total surcharge, together with court costs imposed on the 47 amounted to £348,000 in total. In addition the councilor’s own legal costs were £240,000.
The District Auditor, in a deliberate attempt to crush the councilors and make an example of them, demanded the immediate payment of £20,000 and a minimum of £4000 a month. Failure to meet his demands would result in court action which could result in bankruptcy, confiscation of property, homes, and even eviction. A campaign was therefore launched both in Liverpool and throughout the country to come to the assistance of the councilors. Foremost in this campaign were the left. The right wing spent most of their time maneuvering for the forthcoming reconstitution of the Broadgreen and District Labour Parties rather than concentrating on speaking and organizing financial defense for the councilors.
At every turn the right wing came up against the achievements of the 47 and what they meant for the people of Liverpool. But this did not prevent Rimmer from recommending in late August 1987 that the council apply to the government for “redetermination”. This would have meant the council handing over control of all its spending plans to the Secretary of State for the Environment. Nicholas, Ridley, who then Might give small concessions in some areas, while demanding cuts in others. It would have certainly meant massive increases of at least £13 a week in rents, or 5000 job losses. The right wing, while not facing up to the government, was quite prepared to take on its own workforce. Thus they were prepared to countenance a strike of council parks department drivers in September 1987 which resulted for the first time since the “Winter of Discontent” in 1979, in the dead not being buried in Liverpool. Their response to the strike was to threaten all drivers with “summary dismissal” for gross misconduct”. One worker declared: “We might have had our disagreements with the last council on a few occasions, but they would never have acted like this”.
The Daily Mirror, which had formerly hounded the council, decided in September to praise the efforts of the previous council, of course without mentioning the crucial role of Militant. Contrasting the desperate plight of many who still existed in slum dwellings in parts of Liverpool, the Mirror journalist Barry Wigmore commented:
In 1983, when the Labour Party took over, Liverpool embarked on the biggest rebuilding program in their country. It had its Urban Regeneration Strategy long before inner cities became a Tory buzzword. Today the city’s one vast building site. Everywhere you turn there is the new beside the vanishing old and ugly… Labour took over the city in 1983 and boldly decided to smash it [the Piggeries] all down and start again. That Labour council which has taken so much abuse, also went into partnership with private companies. The only criticism of the council might be that it has tried to do too much too fast – but it desperately needed doing… Since May 1983, nearly 22,000 flats, maisonettes and houses have been done up or knocked down and replaced. Quietly, with no fanfare or trumpets (Daily Mirror 21 September).
The abuse which Barry Wigmore spoke about emanated among others from the Mirror, probably directly inspired by Robert Maxwell, its multi-millionaire owner. Moreover, a little over a week after this article, one of those responsible for the “biggest rebuilding program in the country”, Felicity Dowling, was dragged before the Labour Party Conference and her expulsion confirmed, to plaudits from the Mirror.
She was the last of the Liverpool nine who were expelled as a result of the DLP inquiry. Her speech to the conference, however, was punctuated with loud applause from both, constituency and union delegates. At the end of her speech she received a standing ovation from parts of the conference, while Eric Heffer left the parliamentary benches, went right down to the rostrum at the front of conference and embraced her. She had challenged Kinnock, “to debate our differences in front of the workers of Liverpool, and if they vote for my expulsion only then will I accept it”. Her reception was in stark contrast to that received by National Executive Committee member Jack Rogers when he was replying to the debate on housing at the conference. Rogers was a UCATT leader who had spent a large part of his time in the Liverpool area, denigrating and attacking the council despite the enormous benefits that had accrued to his members. In a 20-minute speech, allegedly replying to the housing debate, he vilified the Liverpool Militants and was constantly barracked and slow handclapped by a large proportion of the delegates.
David Blunkett once more sullied his reputation as a “left”. When he replied on behalf of the NEC to the debate on Liverpool, he recommended rejection of a resolution which called for support for the 47, while at the same time supporting the NEC’s call for contributions to assist the surcharged councilors. He could not resist the temptation to attack some councilors, who he claimed “arrange their affairs to avoid the consequences of bankruptcy”. This merely echoed the theme of the capitalist press. No councilor, not Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn, or those on the right who were known to be comfortably off, would escape the seizure of all their assets if they were made bankrupt.
This charge was answered by Tony Mulhearn and former council leader Tony Byrne in an open letter to Blunkett demanding that he justify his shameful remarks in a debate, either in Liverpool or Sheffield. Needless to say, this request was turned down.
Shortly after the Labour Party Conference Harry Rimmer resigned as leader of the City Council, when the Labour group voted by 42 to 6 against his recommendation that the Labour Group seek redetermination. He even said: “Mr. Ridley [the Environment Secretary] was hind enough to say our approach was the right one.” However, Ridley repaid this “kindness” by rate-capping Liverpool and leaving a huge gap between income and expenditure. John Hamilton commented, “By 1990 the city will only have sufficient revenue to service its debts, with nothing left for expenditure on housing maintenance or services”. Not one single constituency Labour Party voted for “redetermination”. Not only the left and the Marxists, but also “moderate” Labour members rejected redetermination. The majority of the Labour group reflected this pressure. Militant commented:
Implicit in Rimmer’s resignation is a recognition that Liverpool’s crisis, together with that of other cities, is so severe that it cannot be solved by “cooperation” and talks. There are only two roads – either “cooperate” with the Tories and make cuts, or fight for extra resources.
John Hamilton in an interview with the Post revealed that he had never fully understood the implications of the stand which the previous council had made. In a bemused fashion he declared “So… we’re the victims of an accident of history. I’ve sat down many times and asked myself why, out of all the leaders Liverpool council over the generations, I should have been the one to be caught up in this turmoil.” He then went on, however, to hint correctly that the upheavals of 1983-7 were rooted in the situation itself: “One individual couldn’t have stopped the bandwagon of Militant or the train of government.” This has not prevented John Hamilton, in a bloc with Kilfoyle and the right-wing cabal which surrounds him, from organizing against Militant in a vain attempt to prevent a repetition of the events of 1983-7.
This culminated with the right-wing coup in Broadgreen in November 1987, which installed John Hamilton as Chair and vicious right winger Malcolm Kennedy as Secretary of the constituency. In a clear threat to Terry Fields, John Hamilton declared:
If Terry Fields if hoping to retain his seat as an MP, he will have to take note of the new membership of the constituency, particularly the Executive, and work closely and harmoniously with them if he wants to have their confidence. This can happen to any MP – he has got to recognize the winds of change.
The temporary victory for the right had been achieved by expulsions, debarring some delegates on flimsy technical grounds, for instance rejecting applications that had initials instead of the full Christian names, by allowing trade union delegates supporting the right wing to affiliate later than constituency delegates; and by refusing application for membership from dozens of left wingers and supporters of Terry Fields. The same methods were employed to secure a narrow victory for the right in the reconstituted District Labour Party in December 1987.
It took two years of the most ruthless repression, including expulsions, to secure this victory. Moreover, as we have shown, it is not the first time that the right wing have carried through such a coup to supplant the left. They did this in 1955 in Bessie Braddock’s exchange constituency. They divided the old Trades Council and labor Party in 1969. This did not prevent the re-emergence of the left and the development of a powerful Marxist force around Militant in the city. The objective situation in Liverpool today is far less favorable for the right than in the 1960s, the 1970s, or, for that matter, the early 1980s.
This is indicated by the sheer pessimism of bourgeois economists and commentators, reflected in the comments of Noel Boaden, Professor of Continuing Education at Liverpool University. According to the Post (14 September):
His detailed report pours cold water on the growing belief that a boom is just around the corner for Merseyside. There seems never to have been a time when Merseyside didn’t have problems, nor a time when the professional groups and even some politicians were not concerned to look for solutions… Small business and tourism may be desirable but it is not likely to reduce unemployment significantly or provide economic support for a population even as big as that which remains in the city… Despair is an easy emotion to feel in Liverpool.
The professor, like the effete British capitalists, dreams of a re-industrialization of Liverpool and the British economy. But such a perspective is utopian on the basis of capitalism. He admits:
The problem of Merseyside remains our inability as a society to find a solution. I am afraid that the independent pursuit of personal benefit will never translate into a society where problems such as those of Liverpool will be solved.
In other words, Thatcher’s support for “individualism”, as an alternative to Labour’s “collectivism”, will be incapable of delivering the goods. Reflecting the utter pessimism of bourgeois commentators he says: “We might do better to acknowledge that and avoid consequent disappointment. Only if we recognize the marginality of our efforts will we create the impetus for more fundamental solutions.”
This is the background against which the future of Liverpool will unfold. The replacement of Harry Rimmer by Keva Coombes in early October 1987 will not fundamentally alter the scenario. The Coombes regime is on the same plane as the Kinnock-Gould ascendancy in the Labour Party at the national level. Almost as soon as he had taken power Coombes was confronted with the warning from the Chief Executive, Michael Reddington, that “a legal budget could be reached only through cuts in the workforce and increases in rents” (Post 13 October 1987). However, any attempt by the council to go down this road will be met with the bitter opposition of the great majority of the Labour workers in the city. The rigging of the District Labour Party is an attempt to insulate the Labour council against pressure from the wider labor movement. This may succeed temporarily. But even if the voice of the rank and file is muffled in the Constituency Labour Parties and District Labour Party, the Labour group will not get an easy passage in carrying through cuts or rent increases. They will be met by a bitter opposition from the radicalized rank and file members of the trade unions and particularly the shop stewards.
The successful occupation of Millbrook College early in November is an example of the opposition that the right wing will meet in attempting to unload cuts on the backs of the workers. The previous Labour council provided a crèche at all Further Education colleges. This evoked a tremendous response from ordinary working-class women, with 2000 extra students enrolling in Millbrook College at the beginning of the term in 1987. However, as a result of the cuts, the crèche was closed for an hour at lunchtime. Following an occupation by students, supported by Terry Fields MP, Keva Coombes was compelled to come down and personally ratify the opening of the crèche at lunchtime.
This will be as nothing compared to the hurricane of opposition from the aroused Liverpool working class that this Labour council will meet should it squander the enormous capital which has been built up by the heroic sacrifices of the 47 councilors between 1983 and 1987. The bourgeois, and echoing them Neil Kinnock, have written obituaries for Militant many times. Neil Kinnock has claimed that the series of expulsions nationally and in the arena have either “marginalized” Militant or that the Marxists have been “pushed to the sidelines in Liverpool”. Yet in late November 1987, 1200 workers gathered at the Liverpool Empire to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the stand of the 47. Some sideline!
At the height of the battles in 1984, 500 had attended a similar rally. The doubling of the turnout at this rally represented the real support which Marxism had built in the city. The move to the right had been mainly at the top in the Labour and trade-union official machine. The hammer blows of events, particularly the looming recession, will completely shatter not just the Tory government but the grip of the right wing at the top of the labor movement. Despite their colossal efforts, they have not been able to remove Marxism from the movement. All they have succeeded in doing is providing ammunition to the capitalist enemies of labor and squandering the movement’s resources. Never in history, however, has organizational repression defeated ideas, particularly ideas whose time has come.
One trade unionist, not a Militant supporter, commented to Tony Mulhearn in late 1987: “No matter what happens to you people, no matter what measures are taken against you, like a cork you keep reappearing in the river, and usually at the most turbulent stretch.”
The essence of the Marxists’ criticism of capitalist society is that it is incapable of ensuring rising living standards and a lasting period of social tranquility for working people. It will provoke upheavals, social convulsions and “turbulence”. And it is precisely in those conditions that the program, perspectives and policies of the Marxists find an echo among working people.
Karl Marx once said that an idea becomes a material force when it grips the mind of the masses. Such a process developed in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987. It represented the fusing together of an aroused and embattled working class with a class conscious leadership in which the Marxists played a decisive part.
It was this aspect of the Liverpool conflict which sent shock waves through the British ruling class. It also haunted, as we have shown, the right wing of the labor movement. Without their direct assistance the Thatcher government would never have succeeded in their legal coup against the Liverpool council. Nevertheless, this axis has not broken the spirit of the magnificent Liverpool working class. Nor has it cowed the forces of the magnificent Liverpool working class. Nor has it cowed the forces of Marxism gathered around Militant. The Marxists would have been severely weakened, if in the course of this movement they had advocated that the Liverpool labor movement should shrink from the battle with the Tory government. Some erstwhile “lefts” eventually embraces Kinnock’s “dented shield”, but at the cost of some damage to their “left” credentials. No such suspicion is attached, however, to the battling Liverpool councilors and particularly the lefts and Militant supporters within that group, by the advanced workers.
But it is not just as courageous fighters but as strategists and tacticians that the Liverpool conflict put Marxists to the test. Mistakes, it is true, were make; but as we have shown, they were openly recognized and corrected in the course of the battle. In general, however, it was the strategy and tactics of the Marxists which determined the course of the struggle and which confounded Liverpool’s critics at every turn. In any mass movement mistakes are inevitable. But contrast the approach of the Marxists with that of the right wing of the labor movement. They have drawn a veil of silence over Labour’s disastrous election campaign. In so doing they will prepare the way for similar but bigger blunders.
The Marxists, on the other hand, have used the Liverpool experience, both the victories and the setbacks, as a means of educating the advanced workers for future battles. The lessons of Liverpool show that the working class are prepared to fight. But victory can only be assured if they have at their head a leadership which fully understands the terrain on which the battle is to be fought, is armed with a clear perspective, correct strategy and tactics, and will not flinch from going to the end to defend the rights and conditions of working people.
The lessons of Liverpool are not restricted to one city. There will be many “Liverpools” in the next five or ten years. The struggle will not necessarily take the form which it has done in Liverpool. Indeed, the most likely course of events will be that developments in the next period in that city will be on the industrial plane. The historical parallels for the working class will be more that of 1911 than even 1983-7. However, the council as the biggest employer in the area, will still be an important area for the Labour movement. The working class throughout Britain will find in a study of the experiences of Liverpool the political weapons to guarantee victory over capitalism and usher in a socialist planned economy for Britain. This is our purpose in recounting the Liverpool drama.