Given the attacks of the Tory government almost from its inception in 1979, local government was bound to be one of the major battlegrounds between Labour and the Tories. Organically suspicious of any “extra-parliamentary” movement which could disturb the polite parliamentary minuet with the Tory front bench, Labour spokespersons endeavored to keep opposition to the government within safe bounds. At a conference of local authority Labour groups in July 1979, Roy Hattersley declared that outright confrontation with the government over cuts would be a “tactical error”. Any council which broke the law and became “another Clay Cross”, he claimed, “would enable our enemies to focus attention on the behavior of one or two councilors and thus divert interest from cuts in services endured by millions of families.” (Financial Times, 9 July). This was to be the constant refrain of Labour’s front bench.
But it was more than just “one or two councilors” who came into collision with the government. A number of metropolitan councils were compelled – in a faltering and tremulous manner, it is true – to take a half step into “illegality”. But only in Liverpool, with the backbone that was provided by Militant supporters, was the labor movement prepared for the battle which opened up after 1983. Liverpool, it seems, is “unique”. Yet equally bad, if not worse, social conditions can be found in Glasgow, Newcastle, Bradford, parts of London such as Hackney, and other inner-city areas. What was distinctive and unique in Liverpool was the character of the labor movement, its combativity, and the leadership provided by Militant and its closest supporters within the District Labour Party (DLP) and the Labour group.
The forms of organization through which all the vital forces of the Merseyside labor movement gathered, had changed and developed in the struggle over the previous 20 years. At one stage, opposition to the measures of Tory and right-wing Labour governments gathered around the Trades Council and Labour Party, then a joint body. At another stage, it was the Trades Council which provided the focal point of opposition.
In the 1980s, the DLP became the movement’s main forum of debate and the focus of working-class struggle. The Trades Council became an inconsequential body, with very little participation in its deliberations by the major trade unions. It concentrated on secondary issues, which were of vital concern to the squabbling sectarian grouplets which dominated its proceedings but which left the working class cold. This body was elbowed aside by the DLP, which now provided the leadership in all the main working-class struggles in the area. No strike, no picket line, no movement of a local working-class community, no occupation, took place in the area without the conscious intervention of the DLP and its leading figures such as Tony Mulhearn, Derek Hatton and Eddie Loyden.
Save Croxteth Comprehensive
A battle which stood out in that period was the heroic struggle of the workers of Croxteth to maintain their comprehensive school. The Liberals and Tories were determined to close it down. The school was occupied by local parents and sympathetic teachers from August 1982. In a city suffering social blight, Croxteth was one of the worst affected areas, with an unemployment rate of 40 percent and something like 98 percent of 16 to 19 year olds without work. Only with the determined support and financial backing of the labor movement was the school going to be kept going.
The council, controlled by the Tories and Liberals, refused to pay the school’s heating bills or waive rates amounting to £1000 a month. In January of 1983 they slapped a £20,000 rates bill on the three organizers of the school’s action committee. The Liberals, supposedly exponents of “community politics”, combined with the Tories to try and crush this example of a working-class community attempting to preserve a lifeline for its children out of the misery and hopelessness which surrounded it. The decisive support provided by the labor movement, particularly by Militant supporters, won the general support of those engaged in this battle, many of whom became new adherents to Militant.
The Lady at Lord John Dispute
Another famous battle which unfolded at that time was the dispute at the Lady at Lord John store in the city Center. The battle revolved around a vital issue for working-class women. Young members of the staff complained to the manageress, Audrey White, a long-standing Militant supporter, about sexual harassment by the area manager. Audrey energetically took up these complaints, involving her union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). For her pains she was sacked by the upper echelons of management.
The TGWU then engaged in a systematic campaign of picketing and organized a boycott of the firm’s stores. Militant supporters were prominent throughout the strike, which lasted several months. Terry Fields, Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and many others appeared on the picket line. The police arrested eight pickets during the dispute, including an 18-year-old schoolgirl who was strip-searched while held in custody. This intimidation and harassment proved ineffective in the face of the determination of these young working-class women and the trade unionists who were supporting them to win the struggle.
The manager eventually conceded defeat in September 1983, and Audrey White was reinstated as manageress. Alongside her, however, was the area manager, whose conduct provoked the strike, and the manageress who ran the store during the dispute. With the support of her union, Audrey took her complaint to an industrial tribunal, with the assistance of the Equal Opportunities Commission. She claimed victimization under the Sex Discrimination Act. Eventually an agreement was arrived at which involved the general removal of the area manager and two others. Moreover, charges against the eight arrested pickets were dismissed in court and costs awarded against the police.
This successful struggle established a precedent and became famous not just in Liverpool but throughout Britain. The dispute has now been dramatized in a major feature film, Business as Usual, directed by Lezli An-Barrett with Glenda Jackson playing the character based on Audrey White. Militant supporters are often falsely accused of ignoring the claims of women, of standing aside from the struggle for “women’s liberation”. Yet it is a fact that on this major issue affecting working-class women, Militant supporters have played a prominent, and rightly celebrated, role.
The Council Typists’ Dispute
There were other important disputes in the run-up to 19983. Both involved sections of the local authority workforce, and they had a crucial effect in crystallizing the final and complete alienation of council workers from the Liberal-Tory administration. The first involved a section of NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers) workers, the typists, who were in dispute with the administration for nine months in 1982. Events at local and national level had played a key role in the radicalization of white-collar workers and particularly of NALGO.
NALGO began in Liverpool as little more than a benevolent society, firmly wedded to a “non-political” approach under the sway of chief officers for years. But processes were at work that would undermine this. From Selwyn Lloyd’s pay policies of 1961 right up to the Labour government of 1974-9, holding down the wages and conditions of public sector white-collar workers had become “an easy option” to that of challenging the power of manual workers. This, however, tended to result in a radicalization of the white-collar unions.
Other factors also pushed the white-collar unions in the same direction. The deindustrialization of capitalism, evident throughout the post-war period but speeding up enormously in the 1970s and 1980s, closed the traditional path into engineering and manufacturing industry taken by working-class youth, boys in particular. In so far as they got jobs in Liverpool and other major cities, they were increasingly pushed into local government and the civil service. They brought with them the traditions and heritage of militancy which were formerly the preserve of blue-collar workers. Moreover, the tendency towards factory-like conditions, with large, open-plan offices and repetitive routines, also assisted in breaking down the “Uriah Heep” mentality traditionally associated with clerks and white collar workers.
As part of their cost cutting exercise, the Liberals introduced regrading for their secretarial staff, which would have effectively held down wages. The typists came out on strike, disrupting the work of many council departments. There was a legacy of bitterness which more and more undermined the Liberal’s support among council workers.
The Fight Against Privatization
The local authority workers’ Joint Shop Stewards Committee (JSSC) was set up after the election of the Tory government in 1979. Within a few months the Liberal-Tory coalition in control of Liverpool City Council announced 2000 redundancies. The JSSC called a mass meeting which was attended by thousands. An all-out strike was called for the day of the council meeting which was to agree the redundancies. Fifteen thousand workers struck and 10,000 lobbied the meeting forcing a “no-redundancy” agreement out of the council.
In November 1982 another bitter dispute broke out over the issue of the planned privatization of the cleansing department. This brought the Liberals into a head-on confrontation with the General Municipal Workers Union (Now GMBATU), the most powerful and militant section of the 30,000 council workforce. Militant supporters, led by Ian Lowes, had built up a powerful position of leadership within this union, particularly in the key branch 5.
The Tory-Liberal council had deliberately run down the cleansing services. In 1982, there were over 200 unfilled vacancies in the Cleansing Department alone. Outdated equipment and run down bin lorries were the norm. Sir Trevor Jones and his acolytes did everything they could do to discredit the Cleansing Department, in preparation for handing over the city cleansing to their friends in private industry. The Liberals and the Echo – which at times became almost an “in-house” Liberal journal – systematically complained about the alleged “filthy” character of the city. But the roots of this lay in Liberal-Tory measures prior to 1983.
The campaign against privatization launched by the manual workers led by Branch 5 was a model: it both informed the workforce and prepared them for the battle. Examples were used like nearby Wirral, where redundancies carried out by the Tory administration had resulted in increased costs of £500,000 in redundancy pay alone. Moreover, the selling off of council property such as bin lorries, equipment, and depots at knock-down prices, would have undermined the resources of the city and, as subsequent experience in other boroughs has amply shown, such measures would not have resulted in a more effective cleansing service.
There were 8000 members of the GMBATU at this stage. The GMBATU conveners consciously saw themselves as the vanguard of the workforce. The GMBATU members were divided up into 11 branches. Cleansing, with 1200, was the largest, with only 100 in the TGWU, mostly drivers. The GMBATU stewards considered that before they could call upon other unions to take action they would need to prepare their own members thoroughly. A well-researched leaflet was therefore written by the stewards and distributed to all GMBATU members. The next stage was to call a shop stewards’ meeting: 100 out of 120 GMBATU stewards attended. A coordinating committee of three from each branch was then organized, including three full-time officials responsible for the council branches.
While attempting to draw support from the official apparatus of the unions, both at local and at national level, the stewards put their faith in the workforce. The full-time officials were at best ambivalent in sanctioning action against privatization. The stewards wrote to the GMBATU National Executive Committee asking for action, if it proved necessary, against privatization – in line with GMBATU Conference decisions. The NEC replied that, first of all, the workforce should try to negotiate with the council to seek a “success” similar to the GMBATU agreement in Birmingham.
But that deal had involved the union negotiating 250 redundancies and cuts in wages as the price of avoiding privatization! This advice was rejected and instead, the stewards decided to call a mass meeting. The GMBATU Executive, however, then informed them that they could not have a mass meeting because of official backing would be forthcoming only if an individual ballot was held. After a very heated debate by the committee it was agreed by a majority to request permission to ballot all members.
The full-time union officials, especially GMBATU officials at regional and national level, deeply suspicious of any movement from below, were able to play the role of a fire hose throughout the Liverpool struggle. From hampering and restricting before 1983, they would by September 1985, become open strike-breakers. Since 1985 they have not hesitated to tell the most bare-faced untruths about the implications of the cuts embodied in the so-called ‘Stonefrost Report’. The local GMBATU stewards however trusted the workers. The ballot was accompanied by a series of section meetings involving the most oppressed strata of workers, such as refuse collectors and street sweepers.
At the same time, the issue was taken to the Joint Shop Stewards Committee. As usual, the “Communist” Party members and their co-thinkers were hesitant. They suggested that a compromise could be achieved with the council to avoid privatization – an approach which was no different from that of the full-time trade-union officials and was a dress rehearsal for their role in future events.
This was completely rejected by the GMBATU stewards, who pushed for a vote on a resolution calling for an all-out strike by all council workers to coincide with the council meeting called to take a decision on privatization. It also demanded that if the council went ahead with privatization, the strike was to continue indefinitely. A declaration for action was carried by the JSSC. On paper at least, this committed every union to call mass meetings to put the proposals to their members.
The idea of selective action was floated but rejected. The experience of GMBATU members on Merseyside, particularly in the 1979 “Winter of Discontent” was that selective strike action could actually undermine the struggle. Key sections of workers had taken action on the basis of financial support from others. But these front-line workers bore the brunt of the attacks from the media, and felt all the odium, while other workers, with minimal involvement, just paid a limited amount of cash each week to keep the strike going. An enormous campaign was then launched by the GMBATU stewards to explain the issues, which also involved the Labour councilors who supported them at every step. The union reciprocated by donating £1000 to the District Labour Party to put out a news-sheet on privatization. Meanwhile, the Liberals offered a new bonus scheme which would mean the loss of 400 jobs and up to £15 loss of earnings. The full-time officials recommended acceptance of this “new deal” to a mass meeting of over 1000 refuse workers and street sweepers. One angry shop steward commented: “Full-time officials take the view that if you have 1000 workers and you agree to 250 redundancies to avoid privatization, you save 750 jobs. What we say is that you haven’t saved 750 jobs, but you’ve lost 250 – and we are not in the business to sell our members’ jobs!” When the vote was taken, the officials’ recommendation was overwhelmingly defeated, with only about 12 votes in favor. The raison d’être of such full-time officials is to avoid struggle at all costs, even if it means presiding over the slashing of jobs. The theme of the GMBATU stewards’ campaign was that those who were fortunate to be in work had no right to sell jobs. They were temporary custodians of jobs which had to be passed on to the next generation.
A feature of the campaign was the involvement of youth in the colleges whose facilities were threatened with privatization. Joint leaflets were issued between the GMBATU and college students, who in turn took strike action and supported demonstrations against privatization. The battle was seen as a long-term struggle for the future of Merseyside, particularly for young people. This was one of the reasons why the campaign generated such enthusiastic support from the youth of the city.
Despite all obstacles, the majority of the workers voted in favor of strike action. On April 27, 1983, just before the council elections, 20,000 Liverpool City Council workers struck in response to the Joint Shop Stewards Committee’s call for action against privatization. Thousands lobbied the council’s finance meeting. Their anger was directed at Trevor Jones, who was virtually mobbed and was only able to enter the meeting after the intervention of shop stewards. Faced with an all-out, indefinite strike ten days before local elections, Trevor Jones backed down. When the Tories moved that privatization be introduced, the Liberals voted with Labour to beat the Tories. Trevor Jones’ intention was to buy time, work for victory in the May elections, and then to recommence an all-out offensive against the workers.
Into the 1983 Local Elections
The council workers were equally conscious of the temporary character of their victory. The shop stewards urged the workers to turn out to campaign in the forthcoming elections. So vital was the issue that many took holidays to participate in the campaign. Upwards of 100 stewards were involved at times in leafleting, canvassing, and organizing meetings. As a consequence of the battles they had been involved in many local authority workers saw the importance of becoming involved in the Labour Party. This went hand-in-hand with preparations for a general election: speculation about the imminence of one being called was rife at the time. This campaign involved not just the council workforce but spread throughout the private sector.
One indication of the degree to which the District Labour Party had penetrated wide layers of the advanced workers was the support given by the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In February, 80 TGWU stewards, branch secretaries, district representatives and officials had met with Labour Party members in Transport House to discuss preparations for a Labour victory. Such enthusiasm and commitment could only be generated by the kind of ideas and fighting spirit displayed by Labour in Liverpool at this time.
The liberals were not going to give up their hold on power easily. Their vilification of Labour exceeded their previous efforts. Their methods were comparable with the infamous “Zinoviev letter” red scare campaign, by which the Tories climbed back to power in 1924. Labour councilors were the object of a vicious hate campaign which hysterically distorted what they stood for.
The Liberals distributed a leaflet in Melrose ward which purported to show that Pauline Dunlop was a “communist” and a “Stalinist totalitarian”. Their leaflet deliberately gave the impression that it was produced by Militant, with the Militant masthead and a sub-heading: “The Marxist voice of Labour”. It went on to say: “rates and rents will rocket. Labour candidate Pauline Dunlop is a leading member of the Militant Tendency. She previously stood as a Communist candidate in Bootle.”
Another Liberal leaflet, issued in Vauxhall ward with the heading “Why no Catholic can vote Labour on Thursday”, carried a picture of the Pope with the statement: “Who would have thought that just twelve months after the Holy Father’s historic visit, the Labour Party would want to close our Christian schools.” Certainly not the workers of Liverpool who voted the Liberals out of power! It went on: “The Archbishop said at first he thought it was a hoax… But [the leaflet pronounced] it’s true!”
To underline the contrast between the wicked Militant Marxists and the Liberals, a photograph of the Liberal candidate with his children in his arms carried the imposing message: “That’s why no self-respecting Christian should ever vote Labour again. Labour’s Militants not only want to close out school but would ban religion as well.” This example of gutter politics, especially disgraceful given the history of religious sectarianism in Liverpool, rebounded on them. Several nuns told Labour canvassers that they had come out to vote Labour, because the Liberals “dared to insult His Holiness by using his name for cynical maneuvers”!
On “Chaos” and “Violence”
Once again, the Liberals set out to identify Militant with “chaos”. One leaflet stated: “Yes Militants believe in chaos. For as Karl Marx foretold out of chaos comes revolution.” This dish, with various different additives, had been served up to the voters of Liverpool in every election since 1982. It completely distorts the aims and methods of Militant. The “chaos” is a product of the capitalist system itself. Marxism merely describes the workings of the laws of capitalism, of the inevitability of booms, slumps, overproduction and, at a certain stage, mass unemployment.
It is not the task of Marxism to foment “chaos”. Capitalism itself, without intervention by the Marxists, provokes periodic eruptions and social earthquakes from which flow the chaos and dislocation complained of by the Liberals. Witness the riots in the 1980s, which the serious capitalist commentators had to recognize were the product of conditions in the inner-city ghettos, not the work of “agitators”. Marxism seeks to explain and analyze the workings of the capitalist system. Its purpose is to replace the chaos of capitalism with a planned, organized and harmonious socialist society.
The twin themes of “chaos” linked with “violence” were the chicken’s legs on which the Liberals built a tower of misinformation, distortions and outright lies about Militant and the Liverpool labor movement. The false charges of “violence”, “thuggery” and “intimidation” were the hallmark of opponents incapable of answering real arguments. Marxists welcome violence as little as they would welcome plague. In a widely misreported speech in 1982, Pat Wall, then prospective Labour candidate for Bradford North, pointed to the possibility of the capitalists resorting to violent measures to suppress the labor movement. Under lurid “rivers of blood” headlines, the press portrayed him as a wild-eyed “revolutionary” with a knife between his teeth. He was, they alleged, an advocate of “civil war”.
But all Pat Wall had done was to draw the necessary conclusions from the frightful decay of capitalism. Faced with the refusal of the working class to accept the burden of “irreversible decline”, the inevitable reaction of the British bourgeois would be to move in the direction of limiting and attempting to destroy democratic rights. In reality it is the representatives of capitalism who threaten civil war in the event of the left ever seriously threatening to change society. The statement of Ian Gilmour, a former member of Thatcher’s cabinet, in his book Inside Right, published in 1977, makes this clear:
Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them majority rule is a device … majorities do not always see where their best interests lie and then act upon their understanding. For Conservatives, therefore, democracy is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In Dr Hayek’s words, democracy “is not an ultimate or absolute value and must be judged by what it will achieve.” And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it.
Moreover, the real history of Britain is riddles with examples of the ruling class threatening or resorting to force whenever its position was seriously threatened by the labor movement and the working class. As Leon Trotsky pointed out, not one serious reform in the franchise from 1830 right up to the period of the Russian Revolution was granted by the British bourgeoisie without the threat of revolution in Britain or abroad. On all occasions the British ruling class applied the dictum of “reform from the top in order to prevent revolution from below”, so long as the real levers of economic power and the means of molding public opinion, the press and other media, remained concentrated firmly in their hands. Marxists are like good doctors who on the basis of a sound diagnosis can predict that certain abnormalities in the human body, if left unattended, will result in a catastrophe. Imagine a surgeon, who diagnoses cancer at its inception – only to be accused by quacks of promoting the development of cancer in human beings.
Yet with regard to “violence”, this absurd method is used by the ruling class and its acolytes. Marxists advocate violence, according to them, because they predict violence as inevitable, given the processes at work within capitalist society. On the contrary! They advocate a bold, socialist program which can win the support and confidence of the overwhelming majority of the working class and draw behind it the middle class. Far from provoking violence, this would make possible a peaceful, socialist transformation in Britain.
The reformists, through irritating the ruling class while failing to satisfy the aspirations of the working class, produce the worst of all possible worlds. Tinkering with the capitalist system allows the ruling class to regroup its forces. With the real levers of economic power still in their hands, the bourgeoisie is able to sabotage the economy, undermine left governments and alienate the middle strata from the labor movement. They can use this strata, at a certain stage, as a basis upon which to stage a military coup to bring down a left-wing government. Is this not the history of Chile, written in the blood of 50,000 workers murdered by Pinochet? Chile has been turned into one gigantic torture chamber for the proletariat. Nevertheless, after 14 years the working class is rising from its knees again and throwing off the chains of reaction.
It is the reformists, if they continue to dominate the labor movement, and not the Marxists, who will be responsible for terrible suffering and possible bloodshed in Britain. Weighed on the scales of history, the Russian Revolution was entirely justified. It ended the blood and carnage of the First World War, when five million Russians were killed or wounded. The accession of the Bolsheviks to power in October 1917 was carried out in a relatively peaceful fashion with very few victims, at least in Petrograd. The bloody civil war, with its countless victims and suffering, arose from the attempt of the dispossessed property-owning classes backed up by 21 imperialist armies of intervention, to overthrow the workers’ and peasants’ government.
In Germany, the refusal of the Social Democratic and Communist Party leaders in 1933 to forcibly bar the coming to power of Hitler resulted in the decimation of the German proletariat. This paved the way for the Second World War, with at least 50 million victims. The path to socialism will be less painful, the victims far fewer, provided Marxism becomes the guiding philosophy of the advanced workers and the broad labor movement. Whenever the Marxists have faced this hysterical charge of “violence”, they have countered it by sober explanation, outlining their demands and their long-term perspectives.
The steadfast approach of the Marxists to all the smears, lies and attacks of the ruling class was completely vindicated in the historic May 1983 elections in Liverpool. In a brilliant victory, Labour gained 12 seats, ten from the Liberals and one from the SDP. Not a single Labour seat was lost. The Tory leader, Reg Flude, lost his seat to Labour in Warbreck. This in a city dominated by the Tories up until 1964! Labour’s vote increased by an astonishing 40 percent – 22,000 extra votes.
Foreshadowing what was to happen a month later in the general election, the turnout in the Broadgreen constituency was 44 percent and Labour’s vote increased by 50 percent. In the Broad Green ward, Labour gained a seat from the Liberals, winning an extra 1000 voters – a 60 percent increase. In Old Swan, another Labour gain, Labour’s vote increased by 800. Even where Labour did not score a victory, as in Childwall, one of the more affluent middle-class areas of Broadgreen, the Labour vote shot up by 60 percent. In Kensington, where both the Labour and Liberal vote rose by 500, Alan Fogg just failed to take the seat by 24 votes. This ward had been the arena for a Liberal versus Labour power war with over 800 requests for Labour posters. In dingle, where Militant supporters and local authority workers turned the party outwards into a campaigning branch, the Labour vote rocketed from 1839 to 2917 with the gain of a seat. All those who had valiantly supported Croxteth Comprehensive were given an enormous boost when Labour gained Clubmoor in which the school is situated. There was an outburst of joy and celebration that night, with dancing in the streets.