In equal measure, the ruling class, the Tories and Liberals in Liverpool and the right wing of the Labour Party, were flabbergasted at Labour’s victory. All their calculations had been upset. Trevor Jones declared: “I am disappointed for the city. Many members of Militant Tendency have been elected.” It had been repeated ad nauseam by Labour’s right that Militant was an “electoral albatross”. The events of May 1983 were a crushing answer to the critics of Marxism – though successive election victories in Liverpool have not deterred them from repeating such claims.
The issue of Militant had been made a central feature of the anti-Labour campaign waged by the capitalist media and the Liberals in particular. By their own benchmark, therefore, the Liverpool victory was a triumph for Marxism and Militant. The result of the local elections was all the more outstanding when compared with a poor performance by Labour nationally. Above all, where the right wing predominated, Labour’s results were disappointing. In Birmingham, which was firmly in the grip of the right wing, the swing to Labour compared with the disastrous results of 1979 was only two percent, whereas in Liverpool it was seven percent. A similar picture emerged from Labour’s poor results in Grimsby, where Austin Mitchell MP has long been prominent among those who spend more time abusing the Marxists than attacking the Tory-Liberal-SDP enemy. In Rochdale a right-wing Labour group presided over the loss of two Labour seats to the Tories and one to the SDP!
Stunned by the Liverpool results, dissembling bourgeois and right-wing Labour commentators tried to explain them away. The strategies of capital pressed the panic button. Meanwhile the real message was clear: “militancy pays”.
Militant, in the traditions of the great teachers of Marxism going back to Marx himself, recognized that participation in elections and winning battles in this sphere, was a test of the viability of their program and perspectives. Their strategies had nothing in common, however, with “parliamentary cretinism”. It was recognized that the struggle in Parliament must also be supplemented by the most determined “extra-parliamentary” methods on the part of the working class to back up any steps taken in Parliament. Parliament is only one field of struggle, and not always the most decisive. It is, of course, a barometer of the relationship between the classes, one indication of the mood of the working class. Elections, however, represent only one moment in history.
There have been occasions when the ruling class has taken an election victory as a mandate for harsh measures against the proletariat. In turn, however, this has provoked a furious reaction by the working class, leading to the most serious of “extra-parliamentary” action – the general strike. In 1926 the British workers moved in reaction to attempts by the ruling class to impose the burden of Britain’s collapse onto their shoulders. The working class pushed the tops of the trade union leadership into sanctioning, at least in words, a general strike. Nevertheless, elections, particularly in the period through which we have just gone, are one of the best tests of ideas and programs.
For Marxism the Liverpool result was important from another point of view. For the first time in decades the ideas of Marxism were tested out in action at the level of a major city council. This came at the turn of a long historical tide which, through the upswing of capitalism and the reinforcement of reformism, had isolated Marxism for over three decades. Now history was, in the words of Trotsky, “picking up the revolutionary threads and tying them together”. The terminal decay of British capitalism, and its extreme manifestation in the 1960s and 1970s in Liverpool, prepared the ground on which the ideas of Marxism could grow.
For the Marxists, Liverpool was never seen in isolation from the general struggle of the working class. It was seen as a springboard for galvanizing the opposition of other councils and for defeating the Tory government’s onslaught against services and jobs. To fulfill this task, it was necessary to proceed energetically to implement Labour’s program.
Labour in Power – The Early Days
The beleaguered Croxteth Comprehensive was first to benefit from the Labour victory. “Like the arrival of the US cavalry,” commented the Guardian (May 9), “Labour’s victory in last Thursday’s council elections has come just in time for the rebel parents running the Croxteth school.” Using the same analogy, only in a negative sense, Neil Kinnock was to declare at the Labour Party Conference two years later, that no Labour government would act “like the Seventh Cavalry”.
In the spring of 1983, despite their fears, the Labour leaders were forced to recognize the advances made in Liverpool. At the National Executive Committee, party leader Michael Foot congratulated “the comrades in Liverpool”, saying “all honor to the Liverpool Labour Party, they fought back and they fought well”. Internationally, too, the Liverpool result was followed attentively. The Swedish Social Democratic Party’s daily Stockholm paper, Tidningen (10 May) commented:
The most interesting development is exactly what will happen in one specific council, namely Liverpool, where Labour took power and where the Party is dominated by its Trotskyist wing. Not least from outside, this test of what a radical council leadership can and cannot achieve will be interesting to follow.
After their debacle, the Liberals, of course, looked for any excuse to explain their defeat. Rosemary Cooper, who lost her seat by 481 votes in the Broad Green ward, claimed that extremists using “strong-arm tactics” posed as voters to swing a vital Labour victory (Post, 23 May). “Left-wing heavies” were accused of casting crucial false votes and “tough-looking men wearing Labour rosettes threatened electors when they turned out to vote”.
The decision to abolish the Lord Mayor’s position and to put in cold storage the medieval lumber of gold chain, coach and horses, not to mention the Rolls Royce, provoked the first manifestation of middle class fury from the Liberals. There was to be much more of the same over the next three years. Tony Mulhearn declared: “Possibly the gold chain will be put in a museum, along with the defeated Liberals.”
Trevor Jones, Liberal leader, declared that this was the beginning of “a Trotskyist tide”. He conveniently forgot that in 1972 the Liberals had produced a pamphlet denouncing the expense of the Lord Mayor’s office. Now, according to this worthy, a “Comrade Commissar” was to be installed in place of the Lord Mayor. The Daily Star (11 May) claimed that the newly elected Labour council, in doing away with the Lord Mayor’s parade, was intending to replace it with “a Kremlin-style march-past”. Militant ironically commented: “Yes, but will the fur hats, and row upon row of gleaming tank squadrons and missile carriers have to be paid for by the rates, we ask?”. Even the relatively uncontroversial proposal to set up a low cost funeral service provoked the indignation of the Post (28 May): “Labour plans funeral takeover.”
No sooner were the election results declared, than Trevor Jones was predicting mayhem and disaster. During the election the Liberals had repeated the claims of the Echo, (26 April): “The Labour Party’s revival program for Liverpool would add up to £5 per week to ratepayers’ bills, according to the City Treasurer.” Spicing up the dish somewhat, a Liberal advertisement in the Echo claimed:
Every householder, including council tenants, will pay at least £4 per week or between £200 to £400 per annum extra, and some will pay considerably more according to ratable value. Although all council tenants have been offered a £2 per week rent reduction, their rates would rise by £5 per week in order to pay for it… Businesses would collapse and the city would suffer.
In warfare the first casualty is always the truth – and a bitter class war was being fought in Liverpool. Labour had made it quite clear that they were not going to pay for their program through increasing rates. Nevertheless the Liberals constantly harped on the theme of a doubling of the rates, or more, under a Labour council.
The speedy implementation of parts of Labour’s program, including the cancellation of the redundancies which the Liberals had in the pipeline, actually increased support for the council. This was undoubtedly one of the factors in Labour’s triumph in the general election a month later. But it must be remembered that the council election in Liverpool was exceptional. Nationally, there had been a swing to Labour of less than one percent against the disastrous results of May 1979. Throughout the country Labour had lost and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had stood still or gone backwards.
The General Election Campaign
Seizing the favorable conjuncture provided by the victory in the Falklands, Thatcher decided to “go to the country”. The campaign was seen as a crusade against the left. Speaking to Scottish Tories Thatcher declared that “the choice facing the nation is between two totally different ways of life and what a prize we have to fight for… no less than the chance to banish from our land the dark and divisive clouds of Marxist Socialism”. But whereas in much of Britain the Tories could look forward to success on June 9, the omens were not at all good in Liverpool.
In the local elections the Tories had received only 21 percent of the vote, the lowest in the city this century. The prospect of success in Liverpool, however, did not exactly fill the Labour leadership with joy! As David Alton, the Liberal MP, correctly stated, obviously reflecting gossip in the House of Commons tea room: “They [the right wing] have effectively put Liverpool into political quagmire.” Alton declared: “Mr. Fields and others would have been expelled from the Labour Party if this election hadn’t happened.”
The campaign launched by Liverpool Labour in the 1983 general election was undoubtedly the most successful in its history. In no other city was there the same degree of mass involvement. Nowhere was there such systematic and organized canvassing, such big public meetings, or such enthusiasm generated. All parts of the city were drawn in, but Broadgreen was the most outstanding example of the prevailing spirit. Reminiscent of the pioneering period when the Labour Party was originally built, enormous numbers of workers turned out to canvass. A minimum of 200 canvassers were involved over weekends, with the average being about 250. On election day, 500 workers from Liverpool and other parts of the country worked in the Broadgreen constituency.
Such commitment and enthusiasm could not have been generated unless these workers believed that they had a candidate and a program which would make a decisive difference to their lives. With the exception of the Marxist Pat Wall in Bradford North however, no other candidate in Britain faced such a systematic and organized campaign of vilification as Terry Fields. The election address of the Tory candidate, Danny Dougherty declared: “If the Socialist Militant wins this seat, it will not encourage new employers to come to Liverpool.” But the slanders were answered on the doorstep.
Traditionally Labour conducts campaigns more as opinion polls. The canvasser is advised by “professional agents” merely to obtain the voting intentions of the elector. Canvassers are told not to “waste time” on Tories, Liberals, SDP, or even the “doubtful”. In contrast, the Broadgreen campaign started off with the understanding that only through a campaign of explanation, discussion and attempting to convince people through arguments would it be possible for the seat to be won. Sometimes canvassers were asked into houses or were kept for 20 or 30 minutes on the doorsteps discussing political issues. A massive campaign of political education took place, with tens of thousands of workers understanding the issues clearly by the end of the campaign. The main demands of Terry Fields’ campaign carried in Broadgreen Labour News were:
- A crash program of public works to build houses, schools, etc. and to provide jobs.
- The immediate introduction of a drastically shorter working week, without loss of pay, to create jobs. This to be coupled with a national minimum wage.
- The repeal of all anti-trade union legislation implemented by this Tory government.
- An end to the scandal of council rents of £25 to £30 a week while the council has to pay 85p back to the money-lenders for every £1 collected in rent, and where home-buyers are having to pay the highest mortgage repayments in history.
- These demands will be linked to the call for the public ownership of the nation’s wealth and resources – democratically managed and controlled – which is being sold off by the Tories to their rich backers or invested abroad to the tune of £7000 million each year, while industry is being starved of investment.
- Special leaflets were produced and appeals made to the youth and to working-class women to draw them into the campaign. A central feature of the campaign was the call for a 35-hour working week. This was official Labour Party policy but, although in the election manifesto, it was never featured by the leadership running the national campaign.
There was deep skepticism as to how a Labour government would pay for its promised reforms. Moreover, many workers were searching for an explanation of the difficulties that would confront a Labour government working within the framework of capitalism.
The modern working class is more cultured than in the past, has much wider horizons because of the television and other mass media, and sees what is happening in the labor movement in other countries. Workers pointed to the inadequacies and the retreats of the French Socialist-Communist government. How would a Labour government avoid treading the same path? The right wing of the Labour Party, and also some on the left, contemptuous of the capacity of working people to understand an analysis, completely failed to give any explanation of the process at work in society.
In contrast the Marxists in Broadgreen did not restrict their campaign to a few slogans, but sought to raise the level of understanding and to prepare a bastion of working-class consciousness for future battles, no matter what the outcome on June 9. Above all Labour’s candidate, Terry Fields, never hesitated to explain that within the confined of capitalism any limited concessions won by Labour for workers could be snatched back by the capitalists at a later stage. Only a socialist planned economy, the idea of which is enshrined in Clause 4 Part IV of Labour’s constitution, would eliminate the mass poverty and suffering which scars the Broadgreen constituency and Britain as a whole.
A Workers’ MP on a Worker’s Wage
One demand which separated Terry Fields not only from his political opponents but from other Labour candidates, was his promise to be a “workers’ MP on a worker’s wage”. The slogan was displayed in thousands of leaflets and posters throughout the city. This generated colossal enthusiasm amongst workers, who were convinced that “one of their own” would enter Parliament and would not be separated from them in his lifestyle or outlook. One woman commented: “If Terry lives on a worker’s wage he would be the first one I’ve known since Bob Tissyman [a Liverpool strike leader] who came out of politics worse off financially than he went into it.”
Desperately attempting to counter the effect of this slogan, Labour’s opponents went in for cheap imitations. Liberal candidate Richard Pine, a personnel manager, fancifully proclaimed: “a worker, a winner”. The Tory candidate Danny Dougherty implausibly dubbed himself “a friend, a fighter” while other Tories warned of a “Marxist takeover in Broadgreen”. One of Mrs. Thatcher’s strongest weapons in the 1983 election was the line-up of ex-Labour prime ministers, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson, who either scored timely “own goals” or directly assisted the enemy in attacking Labour. Wilson told that purveyor of Sunday “morality”, the News of the World (29 May): “I would sling the, [Militant supporters] out on their neck. Their only aim is to wreck the country and bring it to a standstill.”
So effective was Terry Fields’ campaign that the Liberal candidate confessed that it was “unlike anything he had seen in the country, even in by-elections”. The esteem in which Terry Fields, an ex-firefighter, was held by ordinary workers was reflected in financial donations to the campaign from branches of the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU). Moreover, groups of uniformed firefighters from Merseyside, Cheshire, Manchester, and even Strathclyde canvassed in Broadgreen.
The depth of support was also reflected in the Echo, which showed a photograph of an elderly street cleaner putting up an election poster supporting Terry Fields. He was so enthusiastic that he plastered lampposts in other constituencies with Terry Fields’ leaflets! He told the Echo: “Terry’s a good working-class man. All the senior stewards have decided to go around canvassing for him.”
Terry Fields spoke at more than ten factory-gate and canteen meetings. At a bin depot about 200 drivers waited from 6.30 am to 7.30 am for a gate meeting before their hard day’s work. Numerous small meetings were held throughout the constituency, although one of the major features of the Broadgreen campaign was the number of mass meetings called by the Labour Party. Liverpool was the scene of one mass meeting after another. Two thousand gathered on May 17 for a North-West Regional Labour Party rally at St George’s Hall, where Michael Foot spoke alongside seven Labour parliamentary candidates. There was great enthusiasm for Michael Foot when he hailed the local election victory:
Labour’s success in the city council elections last week has been a timely boost. It was tremendous the way Liverpool has set the standard in the local elections just before the general election. It was very fitting that just before we cleared the Tories out of Westminster, we here in Liverpool should have such a wonderful success in the local elections (Post 18 May).
But it was Terry Fields who really caught the mood of the meetings when he declared:
The only alternative to the Tories and the Liberals is for the Labour Party nationally to take a leaf out of the sort of campaign waged in the local elections by the Liverpool Labour Party. Go out to the working class and explain the ideas of socialism!
Unfortunately, this was not done by the Labour Party nationally, nor in most areas of the country where the right wing still held sway. In Liverpool, however, and especially in Broadgreen, a clear explanation of the crisis was spelt out, and the demand for a socialist program to be implemented by a Labour government was hammered home. The response was impressive. Where else could a meeting be called at 5pm and attract over 300 people, many still in overalls having come straight from work? This was the scene for Tony Benn when he spoke on May 26 at the national Union of Railwaymen Club in Kensington. He said he was proud to be on a platform with Terry Fields and generated tremendous enthusiasm with his declaration that “once confidence flows back into the working class in Britain then no power on earth can stop us”.
The atmosphere in the hall was electric, with the speakers frequently interrupted by applause and shouts of approval. Alongside Tony Benn were Terry Fields, Derek Hatton and Pat Phoenix, star of the television series Coronation Street who holds a special place in the memories of Liverpool socialists for the support she gave to Terry Fields. There was an ever greater enthusiasm at a meeting addressed by Arthur Scargill on a local estate, with 450 people present. The atmosphere was like that of a football match, with workers standing with their arms raised high in sheer class determination. In a prophetic speech, Arthur Scargill pledged “industrial action if the new coal boss, Ian MacGregor, axed pit jobs”. He warned of the pressures which would be exerted on a new Labour government: “There is only one reason why Labour has lost elections. It is because they have failed to put into practice real socialist policies.” He also warned a future Labour government: “We are electing you, but at the same time making you accountable to produce socialism and ensure that never again will there be a Tory government.”
The campaign was sinking roots for a mass party. Caught up in the atmosphere were the most unlikely supporters. A poster was up in a stained glass window by one priest. A Franciscan monk bought a copy of Militant and made a donation to the Fighting Fund. He would have liked to take a poster, but said the other monks would not let him put it up!
There was complete unity within the party behind all the Labour candidates. It was the enemy, particularly the Liberal-SDP Alliance, which was divided against itself, with separate candidates standing. Nationally, however, Labour presented a picture of a divided and split party and this had disastrous results. The attack on the Labour candidate in Bermondsey for example had virtually handed the seat to the Liberals in the February 1983 by-election, especially since the day before polling day the NEC had finally carried through the expulsion of the Militant Editorial Board, after protracted witch-hunt proceedings. This would also undoubtedly have had an effect in weakening and undermining Labour in Liverpool but for the effectiveness of Labour’s campaign. Liverpool vindicated Militant’s argument in opposition to the witch-hunt.
On the night of June 9, the contrast between the mood of the Liverpool Labour workers and the rest of the country could not have been greater. Hundreds of party workers danced and cheered in Labour committee rooms in Liverpool as a stunning victory was chalked up. While nationally the biggest swing in post-war elections went to the Tories, in Liverpool there was a 2 percent swing from the Tories to Labour.
The greatest cheer was reserved for the victory of Terry Fields in Broadgreen. Broadgreen was a new constituency, created by the recent parliamentary boundary revision. From recalculation of the 1979 results on the new basis, the BBC classified the seat as a Tory seat with an estimated majority of 600. It was the only Tory seat that was won by Labour in the election. It won with a handsome majority of 3800. The turnout was 72 percent, exactly the national average: yet the calculated swing to Labour was 4.5 percent. The bedrock of the campaign had been precisely those policies of Militant which the right wing had consistently argued were “election losers”.
Initially the right wing were dumbfounded. Their response was to try to conceal the real meaning of the Liverpool results under a cloak of silence. Not so the local press. Readers of the Post and Echo were well aware that these journals had worked energetically for a Labour defeat in the city. Above all, the scalp they were looking for was that of Terry Fields. In the immediate aftermath of the election, therefore, they were compelled to admit the advances made by Labour, and particularly by Militant. Ian Craig, an enemy of socialism and of Militant made some very telling points:
The election of Terry Fields is an embarrassment to members of Labour’s National Executive who have tried for months to throw Militant supporters out of the Party. Militant supporters in Liverpool were last night openly contemptuous of such moves. And they had every right to be… No longer can Labour moderates and right-wingers condemn the rantings of Militant supporters and candidates. Terry Fields has defied their opposition and is now one of their back-benchers. And that might give Peter Shore, Roy Hattersley, Denis Healy and John Golding a few sleepless nights it will give Mrs. Thatcher and her new Cabinet nightmares. The Mersey Militants are on their way (Echo, 10 June 1983).
One of the most enduring features of the campaign was the building of a powerful mass base in the area. Ninety-nine people joined the Labour Party in Tuebrook ward alone. Such was the enthusiasm of some Labour voters for Terry Fields that one girl hitched from Newcastle to Liverpool just to vote! Workers were enthusiastic that class fighters such as Terry Fields and Dave Nellist in Coventry South-East were entering Parliament to espouse their cause.
Terry Fields remarked that one of the most touching experiences during the campaign was a conversation with a teacher: “Just promise me one thing – you won’t change.” He replied: “Many have said it before, but there’s no way I’ll change.. I’ve got no pretensions to enhance my own lifestyle on the backs of working people, when you see the conditions and the support that they’ve given me.” The day after the election, Dick Crawshaw, the ex-Labour MP and defeated SDP candidate ruefully commented in a radio interview: “It’s rather ironic that the first Militant to win was against me in Broadgreen. I left the Labour Party to fight the militants. It would appear, on the face of it, I might have failed.” After listening to Terry Fields’ powerful maiden speech, the strategists of capital would probably echo Crashaw’s sentiments.
Terry Fields represented the new mood that swept throughout Merseyside. Up and until 1964 Liverpool could be described as a “Tory city”. Apart from a period just before the war, it had mainly been represented by an assortment of Tory and Liberal MPs. Now, in an election where the Tories had won a landslide nationally, there was not a single Tory MP in the city for the first time in 100 years.
The bitterness, the class loathing, which the majority of workers on Merseyside felt for the Tory victors was voiced in Terry Fields’ maiden speech in Parliament. By convention, these are supposed to be uncontroversial. New members of the House of Commons are expected to introduce themselves, heartily congratulate opposition speakers, and wish well to their retiring or defeated constituency rivals. Indeed, one new Labour MP, Dr Norman Godman from Greenock and Port Glasgow heaped praise on his predecessor, the Labour renegade Dickson Mabon who had defected to the SDP. The Tories endorsed his sentiments.
But such pleasantries were cast aside when Terry Fields rose to speak. He made it clear that he was there to represent the Liverpool workers. They had elected him to fight the Tories, not to go around congratulating the likes of Dickson Mabon who betrayed the labor movement. He was there not to appeal to the ruling class, but to express the real feelings of the working class against this government and the system they represent. Terry Fields’ speech, which is included as a full appendix, stands out as a rare note of reality in the Mother of Parliaments.
A cynical journalist in the Guardian (22 July) described Terry Fields as “an angry young man in a leather jacket”, awarding him the “Jimmy Porter award for best angry young speeches”. But the more serious representatives of capitalism understood that both Terry Fields and Dave Nellist, Labour MP for Coventry South-East, would combine to use Parliament as an effective platform to assist and further the struggle of their comrades in Liverpool.
The rich capitalist backers of the Tory Party appeared to be celebrating their victory with a new round of closures and redundancies on Merseyside. They seemed to be taking revenge on the Liverpool workers for daring to vote for Labour and for Terry Fields. One family (featured in Militant‘s pages at the time) typified the anger and bitterness which fuelled Liverpool’s revolt. The Hayes family included three unemployed workers. The father Philip had worked for Union Cold Storage for many years, but since the factory had been run down he had been out of the stones for four years. Of the three sons, Brian had been fortunate enough to get an apprenticeship as a fitter with the council, but at the end of his time he had also been put out of a job. Under Labour’s new rule, no apprentice was to be sacked at the end of their training period. Another brother was thrown out on the stones when his factory announced redundancies one week after the election.
On the very day that Terry Fields made his Commons speech, Cadbury-Schweppes announced the closure of their factory. When United Biscuits announced the rundown of their Crawfords factory the workers were stunned. The workforce, mainly women workers, were in tears as news spread around the factory: “Some people feel suicidal”, commented one shop steward. A woman worker graphically described in Militant the decline of industry in the area. Militant commented:
Walk around the United Biscuits factory and it is a monument to the industrial decay. Within a stone’s throw the industrial hopes of Meccano, Pattern and Calvers, and Wingrove and Rogers can be seen shattered. At the nearby Plessey factory you can see massive job losses. Ten years ago at 4.30 pm you couldn’t move on Edge Lane, now there’s hardly anyone around.
There were workers in the factory who had voted for the Tories in the election. One commented: “I voted for Thatcher, I thought I was safe.” The Managing director of United Biscuits was Hector Laing, one of Thatcher’s “business advisers”, yet examples of management bungling and inefficiency at United Biscuits were legion. Workers gave many examples, one of which was that £2 million was lost when biscuits were sent to Saudi Arabia in Marks and Spencer wrappers!
The fear with which big business viewed developments in Liverpool, particularly the growing influence of Militant, was revealed in a letter to Militant (16 September 1983):
Dear Comrades, Militant seems to be gaining readership in high places. On his recent visit to United Biscuits, Ashby, Company Chairman, Sir Hector Laing, was touring the shop floor shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with some of the workers. However, when he got to me, he pointed his finger and said, “You wrote a letter to a certain newspaper about my involvement with other companies, didn’t you?”. This was a reference to my article in Militant No 658, so I said, “Yes, that’s right.”
He then lectured us on how it was good for business for him to be on boards of other companies as he would secure orders that way. If you’re reading this, Sir Hector, I’d just like to say that your work and that of your colleagues on various boards hasn’t done much good for UB workers at Liverpool or Osterley. My article was not an attack on you personally – rather it was an example of the way capitalism works (or does not work, more accurately).
More than one commentator was to point out that the government was more intimately involved in developments in Liverpool than in any other city. No other city warranted a special Minister in the Cabinet. The Department of the Environment, and teams of civil servants and advisers, monitored down to the last detail the events, the changing mood and the major political forces at work in the city.
Like the miners in 1984-85, Thatcher viewed Liverpool as a dangerous foe that had to be beaten into submission if the government was to survive. This was to prove a difficult task however, and she and her Minister, Patrick Jenkin, were to be forced to beat a retreat before a favorable opportunity arose to crush the movement – an opportunity given to them by the national leadership of the Labour Party and the trade unions.
Liverpool was the only force, alongside the miners in 1981, which compelled the government to grant concessions. How was this achieved? How was it possible for one city, in isolation and in the teeth of opposition from all sides to launch such a successful campaign which was to humble the “Iron Lady” herself?
From the outset, the new Labour council’s campaign for more resources was unique in its involvement of working-class organizations and its arousal of mass participation. Like no other city, Liverpool saw a series of magnificent one-day strikes and mass demonstrations. In a conversation in 1919 with the English writer, Arthur Ransome, Lenin commented: “When I was in England I zealously attended everything I could, and with a country with so large an industrial population public meetings were pitiable, a handful on a street corner… a meeting in the drawing room, the school class… pitiable.”
No such thing could be said about the events in Liverpool during 1983-7. Implacable opponents of Militant, like the Communist Party on Merseyside, grudgingly admitted, after the event, that “the belligerent fighting stance of Labour councilors touched a popular nerve. There is no doubt whatever that the politics of the financial crisis electrified the young people in a way that everyone had an opinion” (Tony Lane, Marxism Today, January 1986).
In an enormous cover-up operation, the ruling class and its journals later sought to hide the real situation which faced the Labour administration when it took power in 1983. They fostered the legend that Militant deliberately exaggerated the scale of the problem. The impression has been given that it was the “wicked Marxists” who were responsible for the social plight of Liverpool, rather than the government. Some in the labor movement have argued that, if only a more “moderate tone” had been adopted in negotiations with the government, then in some way the city’s colossal social problems could have been conjured away. These sages conveniently forget that the Tory government turned a deaf ear to all special pleading prior to 1983. The Tory government would only understand the force of mass struggle.
The lessons of Liverpool were a book sealed with seven seals as far as Labour’s right wing were concerned. They saw the general election defeat as being entirely due to the “unrealistic”, supposedly “socialist policies” which had formed the basis of the Manifesto. Their analysis corresponded closely to that of the demoralized rump of the so-called “soft left”. Drawing heavily on the analysis of the “Communist” Eric Hobsbawm, the professor of pessimism, they attributed Thatcher’s victory to a move to the right by the British working class itself. Thatcher won, seemingly because of the “appeal” of council house sales to a layer of the working class. The trade unions were impotent against a resurgent Thatcherism. Hobsbawm, an organic skeptic and veiled social democrat masquerading as a Marxist, even suggested a coalition with the traitors who formed the SDP.
Soon after the election, a veiled counter-revolution against the gains on policy registered in the Labour Party between 1979 and 1982 was set in train. Even the selection and reselection of Labour MPs was to be challenged by the right, with only lukewarm opposition from the “soft left”. Many of the soft left had fervently supported Tony Benn in the contest for Labour’s deputy leadership in 1981. Many of them had attacked, in hysterical terms, the refusal of Kinnock and others to vote for Benn. They were the “careerist left” who had hoped, through a Labour victory, to get their share of the state pie. They had hoped to ride to power on Tony Benn’s coat tails. Now they heaped scorn and sometimes outright abuse on their former idol.
Neil Kinnock became the new totem of these ex-lefts, now traveling to the right at the speed of light. Al the conservative forces within the Labour Party – the place-men and self-seekers, the Party’s own officialdom, and the union leadership – looked for a figure to front their counter-revolution. Kinnock had been sounding out this layer in the period before the election and in an energetic campaign afterwards. The support which he got from the unions came from the right and the nominal “left”.
Alan Tuffin, the right-wing leader of the Union of Communication Workers, was one of the first to fly Kinnock’s colors in the expected leadership contest following the June 1983 defeat. He formed a block with Clive Jenkins, leader of ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs). Once a member of the Communist Party, and still an inveterate opponent of Trotskyism, Jenkins was undoubtedly a driving force behind Kinnock’s attack, two years later, on Militant and Liverpool City Council.
Kinnock had all the attributes required by the conservative, privileged stratum which became ascendant in the Labour Party in the aftermath of the election defeat. He still claimed to be on the left, although he had distanced himself from Benn and had voted for the expulsion of the Militant Editorial Board in March, 1983. The election of Roy Hattersley as the leader, rather than deputy leader, would have enormously complicated the task of shifting the axis of the labor movement to the right. Roy Hattersley, at the Labour Party Conference two years later, publicly recognized this when he said the party had chosen correctly when it elected Neil Kinnock in 1983. Hattersley is not known for his false modesty. His statement expressed an understanding that only somebody with left credentials could become the stalking horse for the policies of the right wing.
Central to the right’s campaign to carry through a counter-revolution was the campaign for the expulsion from the party of Militant supporters. With all the votes duly counted beforehand, the five members of the Militant Editorial Board were graciously conceded five minutes each at the Party’s Annual Conference in Brighton in October, 1983. The majority of delegates gave the five Editorial Board members a standing ovation when they left the hall despite the vote of roughly 5 million to just over 1 million in favor of their expulsion. This was the prelude to many later expulsions of Militant supporters and others which was to culminate in the expulsion of Tony Mulhearn, Derek Hatton and seven other Liverpool Marxists in 1986.
In the period 1983 to 1987, the Liverpool drama was to unfold with all its vicissitudes. During this struggle as in the miners’ strike, are to be found the germs of future mass conflicts which will convulse the whole of Britain in the next decade. In their response to events in Liverpool, all the forces of the old society, the strategists of capital, the Labour and trade-union leadership, and the so-called “soft left”, were to be put to the sternest test. With the single exception of the Marxists around Militant, all were to be found wanting. The strategy and tactics of the leadership of the Liverpool labor movement, of Militant, despite some mistakes which were openly recognized, were vindicated in the course of this momentous struggle.