By the mid-1980s, the Conservatives saw Liverpool as the power-base of the Militant Tendency. And they wanted to defeat it. The scene was set for a political confrontation… the government recognized that it had lost the propaganda battle in 1984 and had failed to get its arguments across to the electorate. The government now decided to shift the ground of the argument and attack the Labour council directly in the future, portraying the conflict not as a technical dispute about money and grant systems, but as a Militant plot against the government (Michael Parkinson, Liverpool on the Brink).
Thatcher placed Kenneth Baker, the mailed fist in the velvet glove, into the Department of the Environment to stiffen up the hapless Patrick Jenkin. The ruling class were preparing to take revenge on Liverpool for the defeat they had suffered in July. First, however, the miners’ strike had to be “seen off” and this was not to take place until March 1985. In the meantime, they did not hesitate to renege on the agreement, particularly on housing, made in July 1984. This came as no surprise to Marxists. Agreements between bosses and workers, between unions and management, between antagonistic states do, of course, take place. But once the relationship of forces which led to an agreement is superseded by a new balance of forces, the stronger force will not hesitate to break it. In the period leading up to the agreement in July, Jenkin had written to John Hamilton:
I can give you an assurance that I will do my very best to ensure that allocations to Liverpool next year under the Housing Investment Program and the Urban Program, taken together, will enable the council to make positive progress in dealing with the city’s severe needs, having regard to the scale of your capital commitments and the resources (including possible proceeds of sale of council dwellings and freeholds) available to you.
Jenkin had clearly offered to give substantial financial aid to Liverpool to continue its house building program. The Liverpool council had estimated that Jenkin’s promises on housing aid amounted to £130 million. Hardly was the ink dry on this agreement when the government slashed Liverpool’s housing funds for 1985-86 by almost 20 percent. Despite this the Labour council pushed forward with implementing the program on which it had been elected.
It is one of the ironies of the 1980s that, in general, those councils dominated by reformists do the dirty work of the Tories in carrying through “counter-reforms”. Yet they have never hesitated to lecture Marxists on “practical” politics, on the need to do things for people now rather than in the misty future. Yet it was precisely the one council where Marxism held a decisive sway which carried through substantial and imaginative reforms. These reforms were only possible on the basis of the mass movement which the council campaigns generated.
Real improvements were recorded in Liverpool in three key fields in particular: housing, education, and the relationship between the council and the unions.
Architects, under the baton of right-wing Labour councils, and the Tory-Liberal coalition of the 1970s and early 1980s, had created a housing nightmare in Liverpool. In 1952 the Architect’s Journal published a feature suggesting a two-mile ring of 20-storey tower blocks surrounding the city Center. Three years earlier, Bessie Braddock had argued against the construction of “barrack-like” buildings for working-class people. This did not prevent her husband and councilors influenced by her ideas from proceeding to build barrack-like tower blocks.
In the early 1950s a newspaper survey, not surprisingly, found that 96 percent of those on the council’s waiting list preferred houses rather than flats. Nevertheless, encouraged by successive national governments who gave greater subsidies for flats than for the building of houses, the nightmares of Cantril Farm and Kirkby were thrown up in this period. Thus in the early 1980s on one estate in a tower block built by the unit Camus method, an inspection found that 272 external panels on each block and 90 balcony frames, there was something wrong with every unit. It became cheaper to knock down these tower blocks and start again rather than repair them.
The Urban Regeneration Strategy
Liverpool’s Urban Regeneration Strategy (URS), which was launched in 1984, represented a complete rupture with all previous housing schemes in Liverpool. Fourteen inner city areas and three on the outer estates were designated as priority areas, with 40,000 people living in over 400 hectares of densely populated land. In an area once full of derelict land and some of the worst housing in the city, a new park, Everton Park, was created. More than 5000 houses were built in the period 1983-7. The achievements were hailed by housing experts, several of whom disagreed with the political position of the council. The Post (12 September 1985) carried a headline: “House-proud city has got it right.” It went on to state, “The city’s 3800 new homes, all with front and back gardens, earn praise from author Alice Coleman… ‘Liverpool’, she told council chiefs and local builders, has ‘got it right’.” Ms Coleman, a housing expert and author of a book, Utopia on Trial, had carried out detailed research into housing conditions. She completely concurred with the main thrust of the URS and of the council’s conviction that the majority of people preferred to live in traditional houses. She went on record saying that she regarded the Liverpool efforts in urban housing as an example of they way the problem should be tackled.
Real enthusiasm was generated once the population began to see the effects of the slum clearance and house building program. In the first 18 months, more than 1000 houses were built in the largest building program in the country. Tenement blocks, like Tommy White’s Gardens where hundreds of families lived in squalor, were demolished and the residents moved to houses.
Moreover, the spin-off effect of the city’s housing program on employment had been publicly recognized by building companies, who are not usually friends of Labour. In the three years from May 1983 to April 1986 it was estimated by one study that 6489 jobs in the private sector had been generated by council housing program contracts. Wimpeys, the big building monopoly, declared:
The contracts have had the effect of stabilizing our workforce and giving us the opportunity to offer more permanent appointments. We have been steadily increasing our level of staff over the last 18 months, the first time in many years, and also have been able to increase our intake of apprentices. It is therefore essential, having reached the level of staff and apprentices, that work is still released to enable us to carry this forward (quoted in Liverpool City Council’s Success Against the Odds).
Of course, the achievements of the city council were not given unqualified support by the media either. After all, this would have justified the political strategy and tactics of the “Marxist-dominated city council.” The local press, the Post and Echo, carefully created the impression that it was the wicked Marxists who were responsible in the first place for the catastrophe in the conditions of existing housing and in housing repairs. They refused to explain that these problems were inherited from the past. Only occasionally did they balance their coverage with an article which showed what the city was achieving.
On February 19 the Echo ran an article with the headline: “Flats riddled with damp and rot.” A week later another headline on a similar article was: “unforgivable… Life of misery in the home where water pours in, bedrooms can’t be used and a bath is two bus rides away.” It also reported: “Judge orders action and asks: if people suffer, doesn’t the council feel a duty to help them?” Eighteen months later another judge will condemn and fine Liverpool city councilors precisely for attempting to help people kept in such housing conditions.
The scale of the national housing problem was indicated by an editorial in the Echo on the same day:
It is estimated that it will cost about £30 billion to carry out the necessary repairs and would take 900 years at the present work rate. Despite the recession, housing deserves a far higher priority, not only as a human need but because living conditions have social implications outside the home.
The same newspaper mercilessly attacked the council and its Urban Regeneration Strategy precisely for attempting to change the lives and housing conditions of people.
The program provoked some controversy and opposition from alleged “specialists”. The Communist Party paper, the Morning Star (30 January 1985), eagerly picked up the verdict of Shelter on Liverpool’s housing program, “A recipe for Disaster”. The article complained that there would be no tenants’ control, no housing co-operatives, and no role for the voluntary sector. The real objection was that the program was firmly based in the public sector. But the URS did allow for improvements by home-owners, whether owner-occupiers of landlords, with the support of improvement grants. It also allowed for partnership with housing corporations and local housing associations to ensure coordinated use of resources.
Any opponents of the Urban Regeneration Strategy were championed by the press. Thus, the proponents of housing co-ops found their cause being supported not only by the Echo and the Post, but even the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. The council’s refusal to give extensive aid to some of these co-ops was not at all based on any “doctrinaire” approach, but flowed from the understanding that, with very limited resources, the first task was the designated priority areas and to house people in the greatest need. To have given the co-ops the £6.5 million being demanded would have meant severely cutting the council’s house building program.
Councilor Tony Hood, Chairman of the Development and Building Control Subcommittee, referring to one local case, declared in March 1985: “The government was using the people of Vauxhall to get at Labour’s housing policies in the city.” The Vauxhall co-op organization had asked for £6.5 million from the city council to finance the community group’s housing co-op scheme. When it was turned down, the government stepped in to provide the necessary finance. On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, the Tories were prepared to use any opponent of the city council, no matter how ideologically opposed to themselves.
The Urban Regeneration Strategy provoked much discussion and not a little opposition when it was first launched. But once the visible effects of the program were evident, much of the opposition was dissipated. A letter to the Echo from a Speke resident in March replying to opponents of the council declared, “Never before have I seen so much new development in Liverpool as I have over the last year or so… Don’t drag the council down, it is fighting on our behalf against huge rate increases, cuts in services and cuts in jobs.”
The Council’s Relationship With the Trade Unions
The campaign against the URS was as nothing compared to the ferocity with which the local media attacked the council’s relationship with the unions and its own workforce. Under the Liberal-Tory coalition the trade unions had had no representation on council committees and disputes invariably broke out because of delays in hearing grievances. The council’s unions which had been a major lever in bringing Labour to power, now quite correctly demanded an extension of trade union and democratic rights.
What attitude do Marxists adopt towards the relationship between the unions and a local council? This thorny question was to arise again and again between 1983 and 1986. Adherents of Militant were influential both in the Personnel Committee and in leading the council workforce. They were subject to intense and sometimes different pressures – how to reconcile the demands of the council workforce for substantial improvements in their rights and conditions and the council’s responsibility to the working class as a whole. The white-collar union leaders, locally and nationally, and the national leadership of some of the manual unions sought to present the relationship between the council and local authority unions as the normal boss-worker relationship. In a Tory council, or one controlled by right-wing reformists, this would undoubtedly be the case. But Liverpool aspired to be a socialist council.
As we shall se later, no other council accorded greater power or influence to the local authority unions than Liverpool, or tried to involve them more. The council was committed to defending the services and conditions of all Liverpool workers. Undoubtedly, the town hall unions were a crucial force behind this struggle. Nevertheless, Militant supporters recognized that while the unions were the council’s main supporters, they still had a vital role to play in defending the workers against arbitrary actions, particularly from the pro-capitalist officers who had served the previous Tory-Liberal regime.
Comparisons were drawn with the positions of trade unions in a democratic workers’ state, where in some respects an analogous position would exist. In a healthy workers’ state in contrast to the bureaucratic dictatorships which currently rule over the planned economies of Russia and Eastern Europe, the trade unions would still be independent, with the right to strike. They would defend the working class against bureaucratic excesses of the state – even of “their state”, as Lenin put it. At the same time, they would be the main props of a democratic workers’ state. Indeed, the management of the state would be drawn from the trade unions. Marxists draw on the experiences of Lenin and Trotsky. They learn from the past, but do not live in the past.
A local council restricted to one city, however is far from being in the position of a healthy, democratic workers’ state. Its actions are still dominated by the capitalist economy generally, and by constraints imposed by the government. It is still subject to the laws of capitalism. Even under the most radical leadership, therefore, the actions of the council can at best ameliorate the conditions of the working class.
Moreover, the powers which the Bolsheviks had in Russia in the early, healthy period of the revolution, to put more and more executive administrative control into the hands of democratically elected workers’ committees – soviets – obviously did not exist in Liverpool. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the council did not have the power of removing recalcitrant officials.
In fact any attempt to remove recalcitrant union officials could have led to strike action from the Town Hall unions which would have bedeviled the work of the council and prevented the carrying through of its program.
Nevertheless, Liverpool showed that it was possible to cement a relationship between the majority of unions and the council. The system of “nomination rights” whereby the council allowed the trade unions to nominate 50 percent of candidates for new jobs was ferociously attacked because the consultation and involvement of the council workforce in “management prerogatives” was absolutely repugnant to the bourgeois and their press. On January 22, 1985 the Echo, in its “investigative” series “Cause for Concern”, described Derek Hatton, the Deputy Leader and Chair of the Personnel Committee, as “Mr. Fixit”. They declared: “Militant for Jobs… how the left wing has the last word on who does what.” “Blatant use of power over democracy”, it thundered. The Echo was scandalized by the words of Derek Hatton which it quotes: “It would be no good us employing a Director of Education who believed in private schools. It would be no good us employing a Director of Housing who did not believe in building council houses.”
The Liberals, pursuing the “jobs for the boys” theme, even trued to rouse the unemployed. Spokesman Richard Pine, declared that the measures were “a slap in the face for the city’s unemployed who would find 50 percent of the jobs reserved for friends of the unions and those sympathetic to the Labour Party”. But this was answered by Pauline Dunlop, Deputy Chair of the Personnel Committee, who declared: “We are not saying that you have to be a member of a union to get a job – how could we, when so many young people have never had a job and therefore have never had a chance to join a union.” She went on, “The Joint Shop Stewards who represent 30,000 workers will be invited to selection meetings to give technical advice at the invitation of the Chair of the (Personnel) Committee, Derek Hatton, just as the council officers attempt to give advice when asked. There will be no involvement in personalities.” From a Marxist standpoint, the major criticism of this policy is that it did not go far enough. Too many of the council officials, particularly the top echelons, were inherited from previous Liberal and Tory administrations. They were no friends of this Labour council and on many occasions secretly resorted to sabotaging major policy decisions. Three years before Labour came to power, Derek Hatton declared that he would like to see “socialist managers” in the top positions, but the council was hemmed in by union agreements, and national factors such as the unpreparedness of the trade unions or Labour leaders to support such a policy. This was one of the limitations which Labour was compelled to accept within the confines of a struggle limited to one city. It was to complicate and partly undermine Labour’s plans in the next three years. However, one worker wrote to the Echo:
I am an employee of Liverpool City Council, appointed since Labour came to power. My interview was very fair and all questions asked were to do with my motivation, ability and qualifications to do my job. I was not asked anything about my political views. I wish I could say the same for interviews I have had with some other local authorities.
Tearing at the heartstrings of its readers, the Echo (23 January) detailed the case of a team of 12 gardeners who had allegedly been persecuted by Ian Lowes and Branch 5 of the GMBATU. The had been banned to a so-called parkland “leper colony” for allegedly upsetting a Militant controlled council union. These twelve, tagged the “Dirty Dozen” by their workmates, had a record of refusing to abide by union decisions to come out on strike in the past although they had never, of course, refused to accept any wage increase that had been gained through union action! Naturally, other council workers were reluctant to work with them. They were moved to the parkland site in order to avoid industrial action from the majority of their workmates. The attitude of the workers was: “why should scabs benefit from the power of the unions, in particular the bonus system, which had been fought for and gained by union activity?” The ruling class and its organs naturally see such action as intimidation”, whereas workers see it as a natural expression of class solidarity.
While tall headlines in bold type detailed the “jobs for the boys” theme of the local press, tucked away usually on the inside pages were the real achievements of the council. Thus a one-paragraph report in the Post on January 18, 1985 stated: “Liverpool’s Labour administration is to take 100 young people off the dole queue and find them staff positions on the council workforce. The youngsters, mainly 15-year-old school leavers, are likely to be recruited from among this Easter’s school leavers.”
If the Liberals and Tories had taken such measures they would have warranted front page banner headlines. Labour also immediately proceeded to introduce a £100 minimum wage. This benefited 4000 of the lowest paid workers. The council also began to implement a reduction of the working week from 39 hours to 35 hours.
Of course the bourgeois press finds it entirely permissible for the Tory government to put its own stooges in charge of the nationalized industries and even the BBC. The Echo (22 January 1985) emphasized the need for a “proven track record of professional success”. What “professional success” did Ian MacGregor have when Thatcher appointed him to butcher the coal industry? He had come from the steel industry where he had carried through a similar operation, but he knew very little about the details and the overall position of the coal industry in Britain as subsequent events were to prove. Nevertheless Thatcher needed him as a club with which to beat the miners.
Not only did the council actively involve the trade unions in its decision making but it also required councilors to play an active role in trade-union activities. Councilors were organized to participate on a rota of Lancashire picket lines. Haulage contractors who were known to be crossing picket lines were deleted from contract lists. This was part of a little-known but important aspect of council policy, contract compliance. The council insisted that all firms with which it did business complied with health and safety legislation, conformed to equal opportunities, granted at least the minimum wage determined by appropriate national or district negotiations, and recognized the appropriate trade unions for the workers which it employed. In this way, the council was used as an instrument to enhance and develop the power of the workers in private industry as well as in the council sector.
The Static Security Force
The capitalists are completely hostile to any attempt to undermine their grip on the state machine, either at national or at local level. They have always guarded jealously their control of all aspects of “security” and have made political appointments as and when they felt it necessary. Ex-police inspectors, many of them already with pensions, were preferred for key security positions by the Tories and Liberals. Previous Labour administrations also went along with this procedure. But this time Labour broke with “tradition” and appointed an unemployed Labour sympathizer as Chief Security Officer, responsible for the “Static Security Force” – workers who watched over and maintained security on council premises. The press set up a hue and cry denouncing the Static Security Force as “Derek Hatton’s private army” (Echo 21 January). The workers reacted angrily, and shop steward John Dunbell protested to the Echo (24 January): “There is no way we would become a political force for anyone.” Another worker commented in the same article that “when the Liberals were in power, they tried to get rid of the static force, and brought in more and more private firms to do the work”. He pointed out that under the Liberals “security men were working 100-120 hours a week for 50 pence an hour. I think Derek Hatton should be praised not attacked… He has given us dignity and self respect by changing our name to static security and giving us uniforms, giving us a 39-hour week and doubling the labor force.”
Ian Lowes, Convener of the Branch 5 GMBATU and well-known Militant supporter was bracketed with Derek Hatton and councilor Pauline Dunlop as the villain of the piece. Trevor Jones declared (Post 22 January 1985): “It is almost a blueprint of the way Lenin and Stalin gained power in Russia, by taking over their own army and propaganda machine.” Derek Hatton hit back: “It is not unusual for a particular department to have 100 percent nomination rights. In the printing industry throughout the city, trade unions have 100 percent nomination rights. We felt there was nothing untoward about them [GMBATU] having the control of the nomination rights.”
Ian Lowes in a letter to the Echo (30 January) answered all the charges leveled against him:
The GMBATU operates an unemployed register. Unlike most other unions, however, we do not confine acceptance to out register to GMBATU members only. Unemployed people from other unions have been accepted, unemployed people not in a union due to them being unemployed have been accepted, and unemployed people who have never been in a union have been accepted. There are three main criteria: people who apply must be unemployed; they must not have sold a previous job through voluntary redundancy; and they must be willing to join the union if they secure employment with the council.
Completely answering the charges of the Echo that he, one person on a committee of eleven, decided who should get the jobs, he declared:
Application forms are sent out and the completed application form is considered by a committee of eleven people. All those applications which are successful are placed on an unemployment register. All trade-union nominees are interviewed by management, the decisions as to who is ultimately appointed lies with management and not with the union.
This did not prevent the Echo from continuing with their smear campaign. It declared (30 January):
Junior Environment Minister William Waldegrave was today handed a copy of last week’s three page Special Report… he was given the Echo article by Mossley Hill Liberal MP David Alton, who accused the city council of being “sinister and corrupt” and labeled Deputy Leader Derek Hatton the “Mr. Fixit” on staff appointments and promotions.
However, the Echo itself was forced to record the substantial support which existed for the council’s stand both on jobs and on the security force. One correspondent, not a Militant supporter, wrote:
Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not an obvious fact that… the static security had become stronger in number, younger and more able to combat the ever increasing crime and wanton vandalism of public property, thus cutting the cost of replacement and repair.
“We Will Never Forget You”
Throughout the miners’ strike, permits were issued for collections throughout the city. Between £2000 and £3000 was collected each week, and in all council offices there were collection boxes for the miners. Food lorries were organized to assist the workers in North and South Wales. Leading South Wales miners spoke at Liverpool events and participated in solidarity action. A leader of the South Wales miners, Terry Thomas, was given warm hospitality and solidarity in Liverpool. Unfortunately he later repaid this by supporting the expulsion of Militant supporters in his own area and nationally.
Any group of workers on strike in the Merseyside are could count on support form the Labour council. The ruling class never forgave the Liverpool City Council for granting the freedom of the city to the Cammell Laird shipyard strikers. It was a bitter and protracted struggle, which led to an occupation by a section of the workers with 37 of them eventually jailed. Scandalously, Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, came out on the side of management, supporting those workers who wished to have a “sweetheart” relationship with the employers as a means of “getting work for Merseyside”. Virtually all the other MPs on Merseyside gave unqualified support to the occupation and the strike.
A group of Ghanaian seamen who struck in Birkenhead in October 1984 also received support from the council. They occupied the vessel, MV Maiseni, because the Dutch owners had not paid them for nine months. Owed about £45,000 in back wages, they were desperate for money to buy food and medicine because their families in Ghana had been forced into poverty. One crew member had even received a letter from his wife saying that their marriage had ended. Labour Party Young Socialists and Militant supporters were to the fore in raising cash to sustain the occupation of the ship. The ship was actually “arrested” by the Admiralty who considered having it scrapped in order to pay the crew. Their morale was especially boosted with the news that Liverpool City Council and Terry Fields MP had taken up their case. Eventually the owners of the ship were forced to pay the seamen at least part of their wages. They considered it as a great victory and stated that it would have been impossible without the help of “the LPYS and Militant”. Thanking Terry Fields they said: “We will never forget you.”
The youth of course were among the main beneficiaries of the policies of the council. In taking on an initial 16 of an expected 81 apprentices, the council declared that not one of them would be sacked when they completed their training. This policy was adhered to despite all the later financial difficulties and problems created by the refusal of the trade-union leaders to support the council’s struggle.
“Crisis on the Bins”
Thwarted in its attempt to blacken the council on the issue of “jobs for the boys”, the Echo (6 February) turned to “The crisis on the bins”. This was featured one month after the previous campaign. Labour conceded that the state of the refuse service was extremely bad but pointed out that the problem had been inherited from the Liberals and Tories. Even the Echo had to comment that (6 February): “It is true – as Liverpool’s Labour rulers never tire of pointing out – that we are now paying the price for years during which the Cleansing Department’s refuse collection fleet was allowed to degenerate through age.” It went on: “In spite of the urgency of the situation, in 1983-4 the Liberal budget included only £800,000 earmarked for its vehicle replacement program – even though Mr. Cucksey [the City Engineer] told the council in 1983 that at least £3.6 million was needed immediately.” It graciously quoted Bill Jones, Transport and General Workers Union convener at Breckside Park and then Chair of the city council Joint Shop Stewards Committee, “We could have stopped all this if they had listened to us in the past. Everybody warned the Liberals that if we did not invest in plant, vehicles and machinery we would have this situation.”
Nevertheless, the main blame for the bin service was placed on the Labour council. No ringing headlines appeared in the Echo denouncing the Tory government for cutting back on the program which would have allowed Liverpool to have spent the necessary cash on acquiring new vehicles and the latest machinery in order to do the job properly. Nor did the Echo hail the colossal efforts made by the council to correct the situation, buying 28 new vehicles from 1983-6, and moving towards a weekly collection of the bins, which for Liverpool was a colossal achievement! But the efforts of the council did not go unrecognized:
I’m fed up with reading in your paper comments about the refuse collection and street cleansing. Can’t these people see that if Labour rulers were to go out and buy a fleet of new bin wagons and equipment the ratepayers would complain. If it wasn’t for the past Liberal council not keeping up with the new spare parts and failing to buy at least a couple of new wagons each year to keep the refuse fleet up to scratch, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The Conservatives and Liberals make me sick. All they think of is privatization. For once we, the Liverpool people, are getting jobs created instead of redundancies (Echo 28 February).
Another letter to the Echo (13 February) stated:
I was dismayed but not surprised to see the January  unemployment figures relegated to an apparently insignificant position on page 16 (31 January). Yet another example of the Echo’s “unbiased” interpretation of what is or isn’t newsworthy. With one in five on the dole and no end in sight, when will the Echo – the self-styled voice of Merseyside – speak with a Scouse accent and attack this government’s policies. Reserve your venom for Maggie not Derek.
Another declared (Echo 12 February):
It’s a pity that out members of Parliament have not got the fight of Derek Hatton… even if you don’t agree with their policies and views you have to admire their spirit. It’s about time that people who made their wealth here put some of it back.
The council also sought to exert control over the council grants to numerous firms throughout the city. In the past they took handouts without any attempt to explain or account for their actions to the council or the people of the city. When Labour proposed in 1983 that they should take some equity share in local companies to which it gave grant aid, the directors of all these firms were outraged. However, the Guardian (3 October 1983) was forced to comment:
The reaction of some of Liverpool’s business to the new Labour council’s industrial policy seems a trifle overwrought… considering Merseyside’s sad experience of firms which have taken various forms of public subsidy only to up and out when it suited them, the Labour council’s objective seems eminently sensible. Its means are more debatable.
The Education Program
The educational achievements of the city councils are perhaps the greatest of any comparable local authority in the country. In 1982, when the Liberal-Tory coalition dominated the city, the Echo declared in October 1982: “Will no-one sort out the festering scandal of Liverpool’s schools reorganization?” Almost as soon as Labour came to power they proposed a complete reorganization which had been dodged by the Liberals and Tories. The schools had experienced falling rolls over the whole decade of the 1970s. By 1984 the number of pupils entering the schools was only one third of what it had been ten years earlier. There were 9000 empty secondary school desks. Some schools were half empty, while others were full. An imbalance existed in different parts of the city, restricting the choice of subjects available. Only a complete reorganization could solve this. The problems arose from the failure in the 1960s and 1970s to develop education on a comprehensive basis. Attempts at reorganization in the past were class-based closures and they were resisted by the working-class people who were most affected by them. This was the background to the closure of Croxteth Comprehensive which would have deprived one of the poorest areas of the city of its only public amenity.
Labour’s plan was to completely reorganize the secondary sector into 17 community comprehensives. The plan received massive support from the teachers’ unions, the manual and auxiliary workers, and from educationalists in general. Naturally, the schools reorganization provoked tremendous controversy since parents are deeply concerned about the education of their children. There were massive turn-outs at the public meetings, sometimes of 500 or 600 parents, teachers and councilors. The Liberals whipped up tremendous unfounded opposition to the reorganization, especially in the better-off areas, presenting it as school closures and cuts. The butchers of Croxteth Comprehensive now posed as the champions of parents! But once the scheme was established and parents, particularly working-class parents, saw the advantages of the new scheme, with a teacher-pupil ratio that was one of the best in Britain and a wider choice of subjects etc., this opposition completely evaporated.
The most outstanding feature of the reorganization was the building of six new nursery school units, something that had been completely neglected for decades. The council attempted to provide nursery facilities in every area of the city. Unfortunately, Tory education ministers stepped in and prevented Liverpool from building a further six nursery classes.
In a visit to the city in February 1985, Caroline Benn, an educationalist, considered that, according to the Post (2 February 1985): “toddlers in Liverpool are the envy of the country, thanks to the city council.” She was in the city to open one of the new nursery units which were then being set up and she commented: “I’ve looked round and I cannot tell you how impressed I am with what I’ve seen. Many districts would give anything to have what you have here.” She went on to say that her studies had convinced her that children between three and four years old take on ideas which stay with them all their lives and that this sort of provision was therefore particularly important.
In stark contrast, in Wakefield the right-wing Labour council had sent in police and bailiffs to successfully break up an occupation of a nursery threatened with closure in February 1984. The leader of Wakefield council, Sir Jack Smart, was one of those who had consistently supported the expulsion of Marxists from the Labour Party. There was to be no attempt on the part of the national leaders of the Labour Party to discipline or attack this worthy.
Another important area of the council’s education program was in improving conditions in the Further Education colleges. By 1985 students in Liverpool had won a number of measures that would not even be dreamed of in other education authorities. This included: funding for three full-time student union officials; increased funding for student unions; time odd lessons for student union meetings and for YTS trainees to meet with trade-union representatives during college hours; free meals, books, paper and travel tokens for the unemployed and those under 18; increases in grants and free nursery facilities in every college.
Not the least of the achievements of the council was the increase in numbers employed in education: from 16,317 in June 1982 to 16,836 in June 1986 – an increase of 519! Liverpool has consistently exceeded the statutory limits laid down by Tory education ministers for the numbers employed in education. This, one would imagine, would have evinced tremendous support from the teaching unions. But the leaders of the NUT, like Jim Ferguson, well-known Communist Party member, were completely impervious to these achievements and to the long-term interests of their own members. Despite the sacrifices the councilors were prepared to make on behalf of the educational needs of working people as a whole, and in defense of teachers’ jobs, the NUT leadership acted for their own political ends in the most spiteful fashion at critical periods in this campaign, seizing any opportunity to undermine the council campaign.
Great achievements have been recorded in Liverpool in all aspects of education. But as Felicity Dowling, former teacher, and then Secretary of the Liverpool District Labour Party declared in Militant in March 1984:
When Labour was first elected there was a period of euphoria in the schools. It was felt that most of the problems could be solved. I think it has now become clear to all that although important changes are being made, the underlying problems of poverty and lack of resources remain. They cannot be tackled without a major government intervention in terms of money. And only fundamental socialist change will make education genuinely accessible to all.
Thus even while energetically pursuing reforms, no matter how limited, Militant and its supporters on the council continually linked the struggle for reforms with the idea of the socialist reorganization of society.
The achievements of Liverpool City Council in other fields, together with those mentioned above are a monument to the heroic struggle conducted between 1983-7. They are a glimpse of what could be achieved on the basis of a planned socialist economy. Much of the initial opposition to Labour, and particularly to the Marxists, evaporated once the real achievements and possibilities of Labour rule began to be recognized by the working people in the city. By the same token, the capitalists and those who support their system within the labor movement, were mortally afraid that the example of Liverpool would prove contagious in the explosive social situation that had opened up in Britain during the 1980s.