The seeds of the Liverpool conflict were sown with the coming to power of the Thatcher government in May 1979. A central plank of its program was to cut public expenditure and, in particular, to slash local government spending. British capitalism demanded that the Tories should hold down working-class living standards as the precondition for boosting their flagging profits. One aspect of Thatcher’s monetarist policies was to squeeze wages. Another was to cut down the so-called “social wage”, that is, expenditure on housing, social services, education, etc.
In doing this Thatcher was able to build on the retreats of the Labour government of 1974-9. It was Anthony Crosland, as Minister of the Environment under the Wilson government, who proclaimed: “The party is over.” This marked the abandonment of the Keynesian philosophy of Labour’s right wing. Yet Crosland had himself been prominent among the reformists who had written books attempting to prove that increased public expenditure was a means of softening the contradictions of capitalism and eliminating the cycle of booms and slumps.
Marxism had, on a theoretical level, refuted these ideas many times, in works such as Ted Grant’s Will There be a Slump? But it was the harsh reality of the Wilson-Callaghan government which dealt a crushing blow to Labour’s right-wing theoreticians. With its demands for draconian cuts, the team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1976 effectively sealed the fate of Crosland-Healy reformism. The present leadership of the Labour Party conveniently glosses over the fact that in 1977 it was Labour who carried through the biggest single cut in government expenditure, a total of £8000 million. Denis Healy, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, pre-dated Thatcher in his advocacy of “sound money”. Through their policies during 1974-9 the Labour leaders paved the way for Thatcher.
Liverpool, already one of Europe’s most deprived cities, was to suffer more than most under the iron heel of Thatcher and her acolytes in the Department of the Environment. In the first phase of resurgent Toryism, from 1979-83, various coalitions of Tories and Liberals held power in Liverpool. Contrary to their later claims, the Liberals were more than willing accomplices in Thatcher’s onslaught against Liverpool. The slashing of the city’s grants from central government had a devastating effect on the lives and conditions of hundreds of thousands of working people. Within months of Thatcher’s victory, experts warned the government that rather than cutting local government expenditure, massive amounts needed to be pumped in, in order to break the cycle of depravation which had become so evident in the 1960s.
Most big cities over the previous 20 years had suffered a population loss, which in turn had cut their income from rates. Liverpool had experienced a 33 percent drop, compared for example to a 17.5 percent drop in the population of London. The more mobile and affluent were able to escape to the suburbs, leaving in the inner city the old and the poor who were even more dependent on the resources of the council than in the past.
Through a variety of schemes, successive governments since the 1960s had attempted to bribe the capitalists to invest in and regenerate the inner city. Millions of pounds had been pumped into the coffers of firms who, after a few years, escaped to lusher pastures.
Between 1974-79 conditions worsened considerably. While there was a vital need for increased public-sector expenditure, the actual income of the city declined dramatically. Total income fell by 18 percent in this period, while income from rates fell by 25 percent. The total real net expenditure fell by 14 percent from the peak level of 1975-76. In the cycle of falling population, loss of income and increased social deprivation, Liverpool was like a tinderbox. By 1981 the number of people unemployed in Merseyside was almost equal to the number of unemployed in the whole of Wales.
In July 1981 a part of the city, Toxteth, exploded. For the first time outside of Northern Ireland, CS Gas was used by the police against a riot which was far more desperate, wider in scope, and more furious than the earlier uprisings in St Pauls in Bristol and Brixton in South London. Black and white youth joined together in fighting against police harassment and oppression. But the causes of the riot lay in the area’s terrible social conditions, which typified Liverpool as a whole. Unemployment affected both black and white youth. In fact, unemployment of youth in Croxteth, an almost totally white area, was greater than in Toxteth. In the conflict between the police and rioters, one young man was killed by the police. Since then, the area has virtually become a “no-go” area for the police, with the total alienation of the population from the police.
The Liberals resorted to typical “red scare” tactics, backed up by the media in Liverpool and nationally. Militant supporters, and members of the Liverpool Labour Party Young Socialists, were singled out as the instigators of the riot! Clare Doyle, a member of the Militant Editorial Board who had played a prominent role in the Labour Committee for the Defense of Brixton set up in the wake of the Brixton riots, was pictured by the gutter press as “Red Clare”.
Her fleeting visit to Liverpool to speak at a meeting was exploited as the pretext for portraying her as an incendiarist, visiting the city to throw fuel on the fire. But riots have never been the method of Marxists. As Martin Luther King put it: “riots are the voice of the voiceless”. They express the inchoate rage and despair of an alienated section of working class youth, particularly of black youth. The method of Marxists, however, is to develop a class-conscious, politically aware working class.
A Minister for Merseyside
In the wake of the Toxteth riots the ruling class took fright. Thatcher sanctimoniously condemned the rioters, denying any link between the uprising and social conditions. Nevertheless, Michael Heseltine, then the darling of the Tory Conference, was rushed to Merseyside as a new Minister for the area. Millions of pounds were poured into the area – but with little or no effect in terms of jobs for native Liverpudlians. In 1981 Liverpool, amongst other cities, was given the “benefit” of an Enterprise Zone. Companies were offered relaxed planning requirements, exemption from rates for non-domestic property, and 100 percent capital allowances for industrial and commercial properties. Liverpool’s Development Officer at this time declared: “With no rates to pay, it is a tremendous bargain”. Those who benefited were mostly “out of town” contractors with their own specialized labor. Patches of green field were laid down throughout the Toxteth area and plenty of trees were planted. Liverpool wags commented that it was mostly the dog population which benefited from Heseltine’s spell in Liverpool.
Moreover, what was given with the one hand was more than cancelled out with the other. The housing charity Shelter commented in its journal Roof: “There has been something ludicrous in Mr. Heseltine’s professions of concern about the problems he has seen on Merseyside, when it was he who savaged the Housing Investment Program and re-calculated the Rate Support Grant to favor the shire counties at the expense of inner cities.”
Under the auspices of the Liberals, Heseltine attempted to coax the building companies to regenerate the inner city. Before the Tories’ U-turn, Heseltine had been eagerly wielding the axe against local government spending. Liverpool’s Liberal-Tory coalition against local government spending. Liverpool’s Liberal-Tory coalition had been an eager accomplice. In 1980 Liverpool was expected by Heseltine to make “savings” of £12.7 million. In the three months after the Liberals took effective control in May 1980, they had slashed spending by £7.5 million. Trevor Jones, Liberal council leader, boasted “We did this before Michael Heseltine’s letter arrived” (Sunday Times, 27 July 1980). The Liberal-Tory coalition set about dismantling all the conquests of the Liverpool labor movement in the field of the local government. In house-building and repairs, employment, and the care of the elderly and sick, there was an all-out offensive.
Flushed with their victory in the 1980 local elections, and backed from Westminster, the pro-capitalist parties considered they had a mandate for their “counter-revolution”. The 80,000 council tenants were the first to feel the “firm smack” of Liberal-Tory rule. Despite furious protests from Labour’s ranks and indignation from council tenants’ leaders, a 34 percent rent rise was steered through the council. The architect of this increase, Richard Kemp, resigned as Chair of Housing as a “personal protest” for being “compelled” to act as Heseltine’s butcher. But after making this gesture, the “martyr” was soon back in the same saddle. Kemp voiced the Liberals’ deep loathing for council housing and for the city’s poor inhabitants. Expressing concern at the “class and social balance”, he declared in March 1981: “Really, we ought to be building houses for rich people. What Liverpool needs above all is more wealthy inhabitants. The dominance of council tenants only fosters the ghetto mentality” (The Times, 5 March 1981).
In propounding their political credo, Liberal spokesmen revealed the brutal reality of their position. Just before the demise of Liberal rule Richard Kemp declared: “We are not ashamed of the fact that 4500 jobs have gone from the city council”. Sir Trevor Jones, their leader, earlier declared: “We are proud of the fact that we have reduced jobs in the city council…we think we can reduce still more.” No wonder the Tory Leader, Reg Flude, remarked: “We don’t need the majority on the city council – the Liberal Party are carrying out our policies”. The Tories even tried to present themselves as being to the left of the Liberals: ” The Liberals are more reactionary than the Tory Party”, claimed John Lee, a leading Conservative.
These statements were used like clubs by Labour who attacked the Liberals and their Tory cohorts in a series of brilliant propaganda news-sheets and leaflets. The District Labour Party’s Liverpool Labour News and Not the Liverpool Echo were distributed to every household in the city. Using facts and figures and arguments this material undoubtedly played a key role in preparing the way for Labour’s victory in the 1983 elections.
Not only the council tenants, who, prior to 1983, were paying the highest rents in the country outside of London, but also the householders suffered under the Liberal-Tory coalition. In 1981, on the casting vote of Sir Trevor Jones, the city increased rates by 21.5 percent for the following year. In contrast to the average position under Labour from 1983 until 1987, the average householder was forced to pay massive rate increases as the Liberals passed on the Tory government’s draconian cuts.
Later it became a theme of Liberal-Tory propaganda that Liverpool’s plight was due to the “dogmatism” of the Militant-inspired city Labour Party in refusing to work in “partnership with big business and the Tory government”. But what was the result of all the Liberals’ special pleading to the Tories and business interests? In reality, the government turned a deaf ear. The Tories only listened to Liverpool’s demands when the city was roused into a mass campaign of opposition by the incoming Labour council.
In virtually every department, there was little difference between the Liberals and the government itself. The government’s plan to abolish county councils was enthusiastically supported by the Liberal leader, Sir Trevor Jones: “I think the Environment Minister is moving along the right lines. His ideas support our view that the Merseyside County Council is a disaster and the sooner it is demolished the better” (The Times, 27 August 1981). One of the effects of the abolition of the county council was a massive 50 percent increase in fares and a catastrophic deterioration of public transport throughout the Merseyside area.
Liberal “Allies” and Opponents
In the aftermath of their defeats in 1983 and 1984, the Liberals were to form an unholy alliance with the so-called Black Caucus – a completely unrepresentative group of mostly middle-class elements who lived mainly in the suburbs while claiming to be “community leaders” in the Liverpool 8 area. Among their ranks were to be found people with a violent past. But it had not always been sweetness and light between these two allies.
In 1982 the Liberals announced that they intended to cut the grant to the Charles Wootton Center in Toxteth and to the Vauxhall Law Center. Indeed, at one stage the Liberals were intending to withdraw completely the Law Center’s £26,000 grant. Their hand was only stayed by a demonstration of the Black Caucus and others, and a noisy disruption of council business. This anticipated the methods the Black Caucus were to use subsequently in attempting to prevent the appointment of Sam Bond as Race Relations Officer by the Controlled-controlled council.
At the same time, the Liberals tried to muzzle criticism from the opposition. Labour Party members, including councilors, who attempted to expose the reality of Liberal rule, were met with the threat of legal action for libel. Around election times especially, Liberal lawyers, notably Rex Makin, threw writs out almost as if they were confetti.
1981 County Council Elections
All the dirty tricks subsequently used by the Liberals up and down the country, from Bermondsey to Knowsley North, in a bid to climb to local prominence and eventual power, were first tried out in Liverpool against the Labour Party, specifically against Militant supporters. In Liverpool, however, Labour demonstrated that by taking the Liberals head on, their accusations could be refuted and Labour could get its policies across to the working class. The basis for this was the clarification of methods for fighting government cuts which were thrashed out in the Liverpool Labour Party as a consequence of the 1980 budget set by Labour.
In 1980, when Labour held a tenuous minority control, the government had imposed swinging cuts. The response of Labour’s right wing had not been to confront the government, but to opt, albeit reluctantly, for a 50 percent increase in the rates to avoid further cuts in local services. The Marxists had been implacably opposed to such a course of action. In the debate on the 1980-1 budget, Derek Hatton in the Labour Group and Tony Mulhearn in the District Labour Party, pressed for rate increases no greater than the rate of inflation plus a small amount to pay for the promised reforms in Labour’s program.
This policy was rejected by the right wing. When it went to the council the main opposition to the Labour leadership was provided not by Liberals and Tories, but by Derek Hatton, who moved an amendment in the chamber. This provoked outrage from Labour’s right-wing leaders. In their own cynical fashion, the Liberals contrived a “division of labor” among themselves to throw the 50 percent rate increase to go through. Some, like Trevor Jones, abstained in the vote: others voted with the Tories to oppose the budget. Later, they claimed to have opposed Labour’s massive rate-increasing budget.
The Marxists warned that labor would pay a heavy price in subsequent polls, and this was unfortunately borne out. In the 1980 elections Labour lost 6 seats – at the time, the highest loss by any party in the city since 1964. But as Lenin once said, “an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory.” Labour’s ranks fully digested the debacle of the 1980-1 Budget. The arguments of the Marxists were reinforced and became the centerpiece of Labour’s campaign in the next two years, leading to the advances made in 1982.
Accusations from the press, the Liberals and, of course, the Tories, that Labour was a party of “extremism”, were answered nationally by Labour’s right-wing with a campaign of witch-hunts and expulsions. This was a gift to the capitalists. The constant refrain of the press at that stage was that Militant was “an electoral albatross” around Labour’s neck, and the right wing seized on this as the excuse for a campaign against the left-wing.
But at every turn, not just in Liverpool but in other areas of Britain, the performance of Militant supporters standing as Labour candidates contrasted very favorably with that of right wingers. Brighton Kemptown, for instance, was a stronghold of Militant support at that time, and the Parliamentary candidate was Rod Fitch, a well-known Militant supporter.
In the 1981 county council elections in Brighton Labour scored a spectacular 14.3 percent increase in its vote. This was the biggest swing to Labour in the south of England. Yet in Cardiff South-East, the stronghold of ex-Prime Minister James Callaghan, there was a swing against Labour of 5.3 percent. In Liverpool there was a 10 percent swing to Labour in Wavertree where the activities of Militant supporters led by Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton were already having an effect.
The contrast between the performance of Militant supporters and the right wing could not have been more striking. The same picture was to emerge in the 1982 elections and particularly in the crucial municipal and general elections of 1983.
1982 – The Liberal Lie Machine
The Liberals, feeling the ground slip from beneath their feet, engaged in a desperate scare campaign in the run-up to the 1982 local elections. Under the slogan of “Marxists Out – Liberals In”, Trevor Jones and his supporters brought up all the old shibboleths. They dragged in the monarchy, attempted to whip up religious sectarianism, and, above all, played on the memory of 1980, threatening the Liverpool population with massive Labour rate rises.
The Liberals, desperate to prevent Labour’s advance, flooded the city with a series of leaflets under such lurid slogans as “Trotsky lives inside Britain’s Labour Party”. Pictures of the Queen were featured in their leaflets under the headline: “They even day: ‘The Queen must go’.” This was alongside entirely false statements attributed to Derek Hatton, who allegedly endorsed “civil war and bloodshed”. The clear intention was to connect the Marxists with the idea that Militant favored violence against the monarchy.
Militant demands the abolition of the monarchy, on the grounds that it is a reserve weapon of the ruling class to be used in the future, particularly against a left Labour government. The ruling class has been very careful to preserve the monarchy’s power of veto. This was shown when they were used in November 1975 in Australia – through Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General appointed by the Queen – to dismiss the Labour government led by Gough Whitlam. In the same way in Britain the monarchy still formally has the power to select who should be the prime minister and the government. Repeating the lies of the Echo, the Liberals stated in one leaflet: “They want to ban religion in favor of Militant atheism”. To be fair to Trevor Jones and his crew, they adopted a non-sectarian position in their onslaught against Labour and Militant. They carried photographs of Catholic and Protestant churches together on the same leaflet, claiming “that means the closure of local churches and church schools”.
In another leaflet they claimed that Militant supporters wanted to “let the city burn”. Labour canvassers pointed out that it was Liberal-Tory policies which resulted in the 1981 riots and the burning of a part of the city. Intending to make electors’ flesh creep, one Liberal leaflet declared “How could anyone let this Militant mob run their affairs?” Featured prominently in the photograph were Derek Hatton and John Hamilton.
As an example of Militant support for violence, they stated: “Last week, on hearing at the Police and Finance Committee that a Liberal councilor had had his finger bitten off by a dog, councilor Hatton moved a motion of ‘Congratulations to the dog'”. Harking back to the 1980 budget, they proclaimed: “Vote for Militant Labour and double your rates”.
A complicating factor for Labour in Liverpool was the sabotage by Labour’s right wing with their constant attacks on the left and particularly on Militant. On their leaflets the Liberals even produced a tear-off slip which people were urged to send to Labour leader Michael Foot, calling on him to disassociate himself from Militant and demanding “an urgent decision on the inquiry [the Hayward-Hughes Report] into the Militant Tendency”. Throughout the saga of Liverpool the statements of Labour’s right wing would be continually used as a weapon by Labour’s opponents to divide and weaken the struggle against the Tory government.
Prominent supporters of the ideas of Militant rigorously defended the right of Militant and its supporters to be a part of the Labour Party. In leaflets distributed to the households of constituencies for which they were parliamentary candidates, Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and Terry Harrison consistently explained Militant’s real ideas and policies:
The Fleet Street press, who attacked the railwaymen and health workers during their struggle for decent wages and conditions, also pour out poison about socialists in the Labour Party. In particular, they are trying to interfere in Labour Party affairs by campaigning for the expulsion of supporters of the socialist newspaper Militant.
Leaflets went on to demand:
Militant supporters campaign alongside other Labour Party members for a Labour government. But we believe the next Labour government should introduce measures in the interest of the working class, not just repeat the disastrous policies of wage restraint, cuts in services, increased nuclear arms spending and rising unemployment which led to the defeat of the 1974-9 Labour government. Militant supporters call for Labour to introduce a 35-hour working week to create 1 million jobs, a £90 minimum wage to end poverty – a massive scheme of public works to build homes, hospitals and schools…
Militant supporters support every democratic right – the right to vote, free speech, right of assembly, the right to strike. We fight for an end to the grip of the five millionaires who own the press, controlling what goes into the papers, and for public ownership and full access to the press for all organizations. Join the Labour Party and help ensure it becomes a mass workers’ party, committed to socialist policies. Make sure the right wing in the Labour leadership do not succeed in wrecking Labour’s chances by splitting the Party from top to bottom, in their campaign to expel rank and file socialists. Help build a mass, campaigning Party which fights against the Tories, unemployment and poverty.
The growth in Militant’s support did not drop from the sky. It was a product of the catastrophic material conditions in Liverpool and Merseyside as a whole. Militant supporters in most of the constituencies in the area were not just tolerated but enthusiastically welcomed as energetic workers for Labour. One right winger commented in 1982 to the Financial Times correspondent, Margaret Van Hattem:
They are very hard workers. They lick stamps, fold pamphlets, canvass tirelessly for the Party, speak at all sorts of meetings. Whenever there is an industrial dispute, they are in there from the start, picketing, lending support, drawing up resolutions for the workers. But they are a bit intense. They attract a lot of young people… Two of the leading Militant activists in Liverpool have already fought unwinnable seats for the Labour Party – Mr. Tony Mulhearn, Chairman of the General Management Committee in neighboring Wavertree fought the seat of Crosby in the last General Election; and Mr. Terry Harrison, a full-time Militant worker, fought the seat for Liverpool in the European election last year.
Not a whimper, not a hint of any demands to expel Militant supporters when they were fighting unwinnable seats and doing the “donkey work” of the Labour Party. Indeed, in what was then the Wavertree constituency, Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton were extremely energetic activists in the 1979 general election campaign where the Labour candidate Roy Morris, in the words of Derek Hatton, “was solidly right wing; we knew that his commitment to the Labour Party was very tenuous. Nevertheless we energetically campaigned for him in the 1979 General Election, and two weeks after the election he defected to the Social Democratic Alliance.”
The right wing of the Labour Party were prepared to tolerate Militant as election workhouses, even to turn a blind eye to the political influence exercised by Militant supporters in the Labour Party Young Socialists. But once Militant supporters began to be selected as parliamentary candidates they began to foam at the mouth. A frenzied campaign was whipped up against alleged “entrism” and “infiltration” into the Labour Party on Merseyside and elsewhere.
The 1979 European Elections
A hint of this was given when Terry Harrison was selected as the candidate for the European elections in 1979. He fought a spirited campaign in what was in general a lackluster event. In contrast to the right wing who echoed the ideas of the ruling class, and most of the left who opposed entry into the Common Market (EEC) on a nationalist basis, Terry Harrison opposed the Common Market, but at the same time fought for a Socialist United States of Europe. In his election material he stated:
While I stand in total opposition to the EEC, I do this not as a nationalist, but as a fighter in favor of workers’ internationalism. Faced with massive multinational companies, I believe that now more than ever, it is crucial for the Labour movement of Europe to link up and fight together on key issues if the employers and their system are to be defeated. The campaign for a 35-hour week is an example of what needs to be done. The launching of a European campaign by the European TUC is a step forward in this regard and needs to be followed up on the question of fighting unemployment, improved wages and other issues which face the workers of Europe.
He pointed out that the workers in Europe face a common enemy, the top 200 companies which dominate the British economy, and the 350 largest European firms which control over 50 percent of industrial production. He pointed in particular to the need for the working class, through the trade unions, to link their struggles on an all-European basis. For the first time in an election, the idea of Labour representatives receiving no more than the average wage of a skilled worker was raised:
For them [members of the European Parliament] to seriously fight in the interests of working people, they must be aware of the day-to-day problems faced by workers and their families. How can they possible do this if their salary is so high that most workers can only dream of having such amounts? Therefore if selected I undertake to take only from my salary the average wage of a skilled worker, and donate the rest back to the labor movement. All my expenses, I believe, should be vetted and questioned by the labor movement, and I will ensure that this is done. For too long, our representatives have been cut off from the problems facing working people.
The idea of “a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage” was to be repeated in other elections on Merseyside and send shock waves of fear through the ranks of the careerist right who dominated the Parliamentary labor Party. The local press (the Post and the Echo) tried out in this election the methods that were subsequently to be employed on a massive scale in the slanderous campaign against Militant on Merseyside and in particular against the Liverpool City Council. They harped on the theme of Terry Harrison being a “Trotskyist”. Desperate attempts were made to crowd out the socialist message which he was bringing to working people.
This produced confusion which was sometimes expressed in the most unexpected fashion. Befuddled by the campaign against “Trotskyism”, one elderly woman declared to a Labour canvasser: “Oh, I don’t know whether I can support him, he’s a transvestite isn’t he?” Such was the hate campaign whipped up that at one stage a gunman fired on Terry Harrison from a tower block while he was canvassing in the Lee Park area of the city. The windscreen of his car was shattered by the shot, narrowly missing him in the process. Less lethal but equally poisonous weapons were to be aimed at Militant and its supporters on Merseyside by the media in the following years.
As in all elections, the aim of the Marxists in the European election campaign was not just to turn out the vote, but to touch the workers with ideas and raise their level of political understanding. Within the limits of the issue, the campaign succeeded admirably in explaining the socialist internationalist ideas of Militant. However, Terry Harrison was defeated on a very low poll.
The mass of the workers on Merseyside were indifferent to the outcome of the election. The national results seemed to be a forgone conclusion, with the Tories and the right wing of the Labour Party, backed up by the media, whipping up the prospect of even greater unemployment and impoverishment if Britain ever came out of the EEC. In a unique event for an election, in one polling district in Vauxhall ward not a single vote for any candidate was recorded! But defeat for Terry Harrison in this election did not check the growth in support for Militant amongst the Party rank and file.
Resurgence of the Left Wing
The Tory Government’s onslaught against the rights and conditions of the working class, together with the revulsion felt at the policies of the right-wing dominated Labour government of 1974-79, had resulted in a marked shift towards the left within the Labour Party. This was particularly evident on Merseyside.
The resurgent left within the Labour Party and unions gathered around the figure of Tony Benn in the battle over the election of the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party under the new “electoral college” system in 1981. Tony Benn was only defeated by a handful of votes of those who subsequently defected to the SDP. In the nationwide campaign of meetings conducted by Benn and the left at this time, Merseyside was a bedrock of support. The ecstatic support which Tony Benn received from the Liverpool workers on more than one occasion prompted him to make his famous declaration that the area was “the graveyard of British capitalism and the birthplace of socialism”.
The enormous shift towards the left in the Labour Party was a challenge to the predominantly right-wing group of MPs who represented Labour in Liverpool at this stage. Toxteth, West Derby and Kirkdale constituencies were represented respectively by arch right wingers Richard Crawshaw, Eric Ogden and Jimmy Dunn. In the well-worn tradition of labor right wingers, having lost the argument on policy, they then stabbed the labor movement in the back, joining the SDP. Crawshaw and Dunn jumped before they were pushed. Eric Ogden, a “man of principle”, only decided to abandon ship after he had lost a reselection battle by one vote. The party rank and file in two of the three constituencies subsequently selected Marxists as parliamentary candidates, Tony Mulhearn in Toxteth and Terry Fields in Kirkdale. They were joined by Terry Harrison, selected for Edge Hill, held by the Liberal David Alton since the death of Labour right winger, Sir Arthur Irvine, and Derek Hatton, who was selected for Wavertree.
This development was greeted with hysteria by the press: “Revolution, if it ever comes to Britain, will surely flare first on Merseyside where Labour politics are virtually controlled by the Trotskyist hard men.” Occasionally a sober comment would appear, which would give an inkling of the reasons why Militant supporters were being selected as parliamentary candidates:
Significantly perhaps the six Militant supporters share a working-class background and a strong conviction that their own kind have been largely ignored and cheated by those they have elected to represent them in the past. They do not have much time for the trendy middle-class intellectual left, nor for those working-class MPs of the Center and right whom they see as having been corrupted by the taste of power and distanced from their roots by the upper-class atmosphere at Westminster (The Times, 10 December 1981).
These developments were taking place at the same time as the national full-time officers of the Labour Party were conducting an “investigation” into Militant. The then General Secretary of the Labour party, Ron Hayward, with David Hughes, National Agent, subsequently submitted a report which was accepted by the Labour Party Conference. This set up a register of “acceptable groups” in the Labour Party. Militant was specifically excluded from this register, and this in turn opened the door to the expulsion of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983.
The charge of “entrism” against Militant supporters who had been members of the Labour Party for decades, was repeated ad nauseam by the press. It is only the press and their right-wing shadows within the Labour Party who can entertain the idea that the ordinary workers who make up the Labour Party membership are like putty to be manipulated by small, secretive, conspiratorial groups of Marxists. In answer to the campaign of the press Wally Edwards, the Liverpool Party Secretary, not a Militant supporter, and described by the Guardian as “a Labour official of the old school”, stated that “the four are not entrists or infiltrators, but have been on the local political scene for some time. They are not Johnny-come-latelys” (Guardian, 8 November 1982).
The ruling class had already identified Merseyside as the area likely to cause them the most concern. Even in 1982, Tom King, Local Government Minister, foreshadowing the sentiments of Thatcher at a later stage, declared “We must stop them [Militant] because they are unfit for office and would destroy our country.” The fear of the Marxists by the Tories and the ruling class was well-founded. The economic havoc which had been wreaked during the crisis of 1979-81, together with the measures of the Thatcher government, prepared the near extinction of the Tory MP for Wavertree, when pressed to support the Dunlop workers’ fight to keep their factory open replied, “It is impudence for Mr. Eddie Loyden (Labour candidate for Garston) and the Action Committee to come along and demand that the factory stays open.” Such statements were to prepare the political grave for the Tory Party in Liverpool in the election of 1983.
Notwithstanding the forecasts, Militant supporters continued to make significant advances. They spearheaded an enormous revitalization of the labor movement in the area. Speculation was in the air of a general election within the next year. The approach of the Marxists represented a complete break with the pedestrian, low-key approach to the right and sometimes of the left wing in organizing and preparing election campaigns.
The right wing had taken the support of the workers for granted. In one canvass on Wavertree a man told Derek Hatton that in 20 years of living in the area no one from the Labour Party had knocked on his door before! A mass campaign to win workers to the Labour Party and to prepare for a general election was launched in all the constituencies.
The mass door-to-door canvassing in Wavertree in 1982 was typical of the local campaigns carried out at this time. Two hundred, predominantly Young Socialists, converged on the area. Three quarters of the constituency was canvassed in a weekend! The same approach was adopted in other Liverpool constituencies. Thousands of new members were won to the party. Connections were cemented with the shop stewards and active workers in union branches by the tireless work of the parliamentary candidates and councilors in support of workers fighting to prevent redundancies etc. Even Dick Crashaw in one of his rare frank moments was forced to declare “Many of the Militant Tendency in Toxteth are, I believe, motivated by a genuine desire to change our society for the better.”
The opponents of Labour were taken aback by the sweep, the verve and élan that was generated in these campaigns. Like tributaries these were to converge into one huge river in the elections both to the council and to Parliament in 1983. The campaign launched in the parliamentary seats were undoubtedly test runs for the spectacular campaigns organized between 1983 and 1985.
The May 1982 Council Elections
Labour’s refusal to bow before the avalanche of hostile propaganda from the media and the Tories and Liberals, paid rich dividends in the 1982 elections. In contrast to the dismal performance of Labour in other regions, Labour triumphed in Liverpool. These elections took place during the Falklands War. The “Falklands factor”, so evident in the 1983 General Election, was already exercising an influence. Thatcher, in her conflict with the Argentinean junta over the Falklands, was able to draw on the relics of Britain’s past imperialist role.
The memory of former glory, when Britain controlled one quarter of mankind, was drawn on heavily by the ruling class in this conflict. The petit-bourgeois strata, together with certain politically backward sections of the working class, were enraptured by the prospect of a return to some long-lost “Golden Age”. There was the illusion that just as Britain “beat the Argies”, so the economic and political problems besetting the nation could somehow be conjured away by Thatcher’s new imperial grand design. With the Labour leadership providing no serious alternative this potent drug – for a very short period – was able to have a certain effect. The “Falklands factor” then played a significant part in the 1982 council elections. But even so it was striking that where Labour went out and campaigned on the real issues facing working people and explained a class alternative to the Falklands war, it was possible to cur across this process. In Islington in London, for instance (a left, campaigning party in which Militant supporters played some role), the SDP’s stranglehold over the council was broken. Every ward was canvassed, sometimes several times over. Even on the eve of the poll, when the SDP brought out a last-minute leaflet, the Labour Party was able to bring out a quick reply and deliver it to every house in the borough. Unfortunately, Islington was the exception to a general rule of Labour indolence and inactivity.
When the votes were counted in Liverpool on May 6, the Liberals suffered a heavy blow – from which they have still not recovered to this day. The Echo (May 7) declared: “All eyes had been on the City – the only Liberal-controlled city in the country – as being a likely place for a Liberal-SDP Alliance victory”. Sir Trevor Jones had been consistently predicting a total of 48 Liverpool seats, with perhaps another 3 coming from their uncertain allies in the SDP, which would have pushed them over the 50 mark to give them an overall majority.
However, as the Echo commented: “City voters clearly rejected his anti-Marxist campaign, much to the delight of Labour and Tory chiefs who had branded it as a smokescreen.” It went on: “In a crushing disappointment for Liverpool Liberals and their SDP Alliance partners, the city took two steps to the Left in the local elections. Labour gained a net two seats from the ruling Liberals, and the SDP liked up to its cruel nickname the ‘Sudden Death Party’ – by being completely wiped out.”
The modest overall advance in terms of seats – a net gain of only two – disguised the real scale of Labour’s victory. The Liberals had suffered an absolutely stunning blow with the loss of Smithdown ward, the birthplace of the Liberal revival. This was the ward which first sent “Boy Wonder” David Alton to the city council, which he used as a springboard to grab the parliamentary seat of Edgehill in 1979.
Moreover, while Labour did very well throughout the city, where Militant supporters stood they did spectacularly well. In Wavertree, for instance, where a particularly vicious campaign was launched against Paul Astbury, a Labour Party Young Socialist, all the Labour votes increased and he was elected onto the council. Even where Labour was not completely successful, the votes of the Liberals fell dramatically. In Kensington in the Edgehill constituency, the Liberal vote decreased from the 1980 election by 1000 votes and their majority was reduced to only 65 votes. In Picton, which was the safest Liberal seat in the country, the Liberal vote was also reduced by over 1000.
One of the best results was in Dingle ward in the Toxteth constituency, where Labour, increasing its vote by nearly 300, won the seat from the Liberals. This was undoubtedly a product of a fighting, active campaign by the Labour Party, particularly since Tony Mulhearn had been selected as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Toxteth. In Broadgreen, anticipating its success in the 1983 general election, Labour achieved a spectacular increase in its vote. In some wards, before Militant supporters became dominant, there had been no canvassing for more than 12 years. So desperate were the Liberals in this election, that they even accused Labour of trying to confuse the voters in one of the wards by standing a candidate with the same (uncommon) name as the Liberals’ candidate – Smith!
Despite their success, labor did not attain a majority on the city council. They now had 42 seats, but the Liberals and Tories between them still commanded a majority with 57 seats. The District Labour Party (DLP) therefore took a decision not to take the chair of Council committees, a step which, lacking overall control, would have involved carrying out Liberal-Tory policies of cuts, redundancies and rent rises. Instead, the DLP saw the 1982 elections as a springboard for a massive campaign to achieve majority control the following year. The new campaign was to be more energetic and spread even wider. Significantly, it would embrace important layers of the council workforce.
No Labour Party anywhere else in the country had mapped out a campaign of such scope. It was to reach practically every group of workers who had been alienated by Liberal-Tory rule, hit by the collapse of industry, and affected by cuts in social services, and who were looking for a new era under Labour. Labour’s 1983 victory was conditioned by the catastrophic economic and social conditions on Merseyside. But the scale of this victory would have been impossible without the guiding hand of the Militant supporters and their strategy and tactics at each decisive stage in the struggle.
The rise to prominence of Militant and its supporters was long in its gestation, as we have seen. For more than 40 years, Marxism had been an oppositional current within the Merseyside labor movement, only occasionally able to lead a section of the working class in mass struggle. Now the ideas of Militant were to be put to the test. Merseyside was to be a laboratory in which the ideas of both Militant and its opponents would be tested. How would Militant conduct itself in leading a mass movement? When faced with a decisive test, would these ideas crumble in the face of the combined resistance of the ruling class, the reformist right, and of the soft left within the Labour Party? Would the Marxists be capable of gathering wide layers of the working class behind the banner of a militant labor movement, to educate and steel them, not just for the current battles but for the long-term struggle to change society?
Marxists approach work on the councils in a similar fashion to work in parliament. First and foremost the council is seen as a platform with which to raise the political consciousness of the working class. This involves not just propaganda, but the need to take whatever measures are possible within the framework of local government to improve and ameliorate the conditions of the working class. Given the vice-like grip which had been imposed on local government spending, this of necessity would require the mobilization of the majority of the population to bring mass pressure to bear on the Tory Government.
Contrary to what their opponents have argues, the Marxists do not make “utopian” demands in the knowledge that they are “unrealizable”. Whether they are realizable or not, depends on the struggles of the working class. It is not entirely ruled out that under certain conditions the ruling class, as events in Liverpool were to show, can be compelled to take a step backwards and to give concessions.
Reformists demand very little from the government and the capitalists, and their reward is invariably less than nothing. This had been the brutal experience under Liverpool’s Tory-Liberal coalitions throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. As the Marxists consistently pointed out, however, even when gains were made, any concessions would be purely temporary and on the terms of capitalism. When confronted with an unfavorable relationship of forces, the British ruling class, with its long experience of bending to hostile winds, take a step backwards, wait for a more favorable period, and then takes back, the concessions – with interest.
Another guiding principle of Militant supporters was to tell the working class the truth. Engaging in maneuvers or attempting to cover up unpalatable truths could only result in deceiving the working class and lowering its level of understanding. It was necessary to explain to the widest layers of the working class the reality of the situation confronting Liverpool and what a Labour council would mean to the city.