Nov 20 2011

Liverpool – the city that dared to fight

Emancipation & Liberation has published a number of articles relating to the current struggle against public sector cuts including:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/04/17/international-resistance-to-public-sector-cuts/

Socialists have drawn lessons from the struggles against Thatcher in the 1980’s and 1980’s. Emancipation & Liberation has already looked at the lessons to be drawn from the Anti-Poll Tax Struggle:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/05/27/20-years-after-the-poll-tax-lessons-for-the-anti-cuts-movement/

Here we published an article by Mark Hoskisson, currently the Secretary of Liverpool Trades Council, on the  city’s struggle against Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980’s. This struggle was led by the Militant Tendency, which was then the dominant political grouping in the Liverpool District Labour Party.

Occasionally we hear this example being quoted by former CWI/Militant members in the SSP. Mark, whilst praising “the city that dared to fight”, argues for a critical assessment of Militant’s role.

Furthermore, Mark notes in passing Militant’s promotion of Derek Hatton at the time. Having been publicly boosted by Militant, Hatton was soon to leave and pursue his own career as a media celebrity. Clearly the promotion of ‘celebrity politics’ has become a deeply engrained feature of CWI politics  which they have been unable to move on from, as we can see in their role of boosting Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway in Scotland. However, as we join today’s struggles against the cuts, it is vital that Socialists do learn from this and help to build open democratic organisations where everybody is fully accountable.

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LIVERPOOL – THE CITY THAT DARED TO FIGHT
(First published in Permanent Revolution, issue no. 21)

In early 2011 at a packed Liverpool Trades Union Council public meeting to mobilise for the anti-cuts struggle a voice from the back of the crowd shouted “God bless the 47”. The 47 in question were Labour councillors from the city who, nearly three decades earlier, had dared to challenge Margaret Thatcher’s cuts programme. Under the political leadership of the Militant Tendency, Labour took control of the council in 1983. The 47 were disbarred from office and surcharged £106,000 plus £242,000 in costs by the Law Lords in March 1987. All of the local leaders of the council struggle were subsequently expelled from the Labour Party as well.

The five judges from the House of Lords upheld a decision by an unelected district auditor to dismiss, surcharge and threaten with both bankruptcy and prison 47 democratically elected councillors. Their crime was that they had remained faithful to their electoral pledge that it was “Better to break the law than break the poor”. They refused to set the cuts budget demanded by the national Tory government.

Instead they set about building 5,000 thousand new homes and refurbishing 7,000 older houses. They re-organised schools in the city in favour of the working class. They created thousands of jobs in a city plagued by mass unemployment. They opened more nurseries than any other council in the country and froze rents for five years.

Little wonder then that their memory and legacy lives on in “The city that dared to fight”, as one of the 47 Tony Mulhearn dubbed it. Little wonder also that the stand taken by the 47 (1) is a point of reference for today’s battles against Tory-Lib Dem imposed cuts. The decisions taken by the Labour council between 1983 and 1987 are in stark contrast to the council elected in May 2010.

Today’s Labour Council, led by Joe Anderson, has agreed to impose a cuts budget with £91 million of spending being slashed, housing programmes frozen, school building projects axed and of course thousands of jobs being destroyed. Today’s council has chosen to do the Con-Dem coalition’s dirty work rather than call on the people of the city to rise up in resistance.

Only a sectarian would regard the legacy of the 47 as an example of  “Labour betrayal”. The achievements of the council were real. The councillors’ fight was part of a real mass movement of resistance and the attempts to link the council’s struggle to strike action by the city’s workforce were absolutely correct in their intent.

But to defend the record of Liverpool Council between 1983 and 1987 is not to say – as some of Militant’s heirs, like the Socialist Party today claim – that no mistakes at all were made and that the tactics used during the struggle were all perfect and the only model to follow.

Rather, we need a balance sheet that builds on the legacy of the 47 that faces up to the mistakes made and the weaknesses in Militant’s politics that those mistakes revealed.

And given the struggle ended in defeat we need a balance sheet that does not uncritically bless it, not withstanding the call for the divinity to do just that at the mass public meeting of Liverpool Trades Union Council!

The Background

In 1981 Liverpool exploded with the Toxteth riots as black and white youth rose up against a regime of police brutality and harassment and against the city’s staggering devastation at the hands of the Thatcher’s Tory government. Liverpool’s industries were laid waste by the slump politicians at Westminster – down by 65% in 1983. Mass unemployment was like a plague killing the city, whose population fell to a record low of 460,000 in 1983. The social carnage suffered at the hands of the Tories was captured in a 1980s television play, The Boys from The Blackstuff, with its infamous catch phrase “gizza job”.

Thatcher’s cuts to the grant allocation system for local government had, in real terms, taken £34 million from Liverpool between 1979 and 1983. The Liberal council had played along with these cuts – chopping the council workforce by 2,000, freezing council house building and cutting local services to the bone.

The uprising of 1981 though, showed that Liverpool was prepared to fight back. And in May 1983 a Labour council was voted in. A month later Thatcher won her landslide election, but Liverpool bucked the trend. It was a Tory-free city and in Terry Fields, the MP who won Broadgreen, a Militant supporter and well known local class fighter, the city demonstrated that it wanted politicians who would take the fight to Thatcher.

Thatcher was choking off funds to local councils she despised – and Liverpool was top of her list – by capping rates. She aimed to bankrupt councils like Liverpool committed to socially progressive spending programmes. For a period she met resistance from an alliance of left Labour councils. But as the battle lines hardened many Labour councillors caved in to Neil Kinnock’s appeal to avoid a fight. He argued that it was better for Labour councils to give in and act as a “dented shield” than to engage in an all out fight with an enemy he believed could and should only be challenged at the polls.

The Liverpool 47 ignored this call for submission to the enemy. In November 1983 a demonstration of 25,000 was held in the city supporting the council’s stand of setting a budget to meet the needs of the city. In 1984, as the day loomed for setting the illegal deficit budget the scale of support for the 47 was revealed when 50,000 took to the streets to back them. This was soon followed by more victories at the polls, giving Labour seven more seats on the council.

This show of strength terrified the Tories, but it also exposed quite how calculating they could be. After all, at this point the miners had gone on strike and the struggle that was to define a generation began. To avoid the pitfall of fighting on two fronts the Tories “found” an extra £60 million to save the council from having to set a deficit budget.

This was to prove the high point of the mass struggle. Of course further strikes and demonstrations in support of the council followed in 1985 and 1986. But the situation had changed. The council was now under direct attack not only by Tories gleefully waving the scalps of the miners’ union at Liverpool but also by Kinnock who denounced the Liverpool councillors at the 1985 Labour Party conference as the opening shot of his war against the left in the party.

From this point on the Liverpool council – having missed the chance to make common cause with the miners in 1984 with the explicit goal of bringing down Thatcher – now found itself under fire from many sides, and with fewer and fewer allies in a labour movement demoralised by the miners’ defeat. In September 1985 the councilors were suspended by the District Auditor and in November the Liverpool District Labour Party was suspended by Kinnock. From that point on the struggle was on the ebb.

Militant’s political approach

In 1983 the District Labour Party (DLP) in Liverpool was dominated by Militant, with leaders like Tony Mulhearn, the party chairman at the time. The DLP, as Tony Mulhearn explained at the time, was decisive in drafting the 1983 anti-cuts manifesto in the city, one which produced a historically unprecedented swing to Labour. The DLP also exercised control over the council itself. As Tony Mulhearn put it: “The District Labour Party is the policy-making body but also the Labour group implement that policy and the Liverpool District Labour Party elect the leader, the deputy leader and the chairman of the key positions in the Labour group, a position which as far as I know is unparalleled.” (2)

In the light of this it is clear that the decisions and strategy of the DLP shaped the struggle in Liverpool. We have explained above what we think it got right. But what did it get wrong?

The there are three key elements to Liverpool DLP’s strategy that contributed to the eventual defeat of the struggle. Inevitably they overlap with fundamental aspects of Militant’s overall strategy for socialist struggle at the time:

– Militant’s conception of the role of the party in carrying through the struggle

– Militant’s view of the mechanics of social transformation

– The council’s view of its struggle as a sectoral confrontation with the Thatcher government

In 1983 Militant believed that the only way to build a mass socialist party was through capturing the Labour Party – by entering it and working in it – and winning its leadership to Marxism. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this schema (a schema the Socialist Party has now broken from), they maintained a view of the “leading role of the revolutionary party” which had its origins in the distortions of revolutionary communism during the rise of the bureaucracy in post-revolutionary Russia in the 1920s.

This view elevates the party to the role of supreme arbiter of the interests of the working class and underestimates the pivotal role of generalised working class democracy and non-party organisations. The party can only be a true leader by virtue of the consent of the masses – party and non-party. It cannot and should never be the sole decision making body on behalf of the masses.

In Liverpool this meant that, once captured and placed in the hands of the “Marxist leadership” i.e. the Militant Tendency, the District Labour Party became the exclusive means through which strategy in the city could be debated and decided. The contribution of other organisations, the democracy of other organisations, and the role of political and social organisations outside of the DLP was limited. They could all have their say, but they were not involved in taking decisions.

A non-Militant member of the council, but one who worked very closely with them, Tony Byrne (the architect of the council’s financial strategy), put it bluntly: “All policies are decided and supported by the Labour Party, not outside organisations. The best way to contribute to policy in the Labour Party is to be in it. In fact I wouldn’t think there is much hope of influencing policy if you are not in.” (3)

In Liverpool there was, and is to this day, a rich tradition of non-party working class organisation, through the unions, through community organisations, through sizeable non-Labour working class political parties. These organisations represented thousands of workers and their direct involvement, not just their support, in deciding the fate of the struggle was something that needed to be developed, cherished and incorporated into a strategy for change.

The council did not take this road. It substituted the DLP for mass working class participatory democracy. The DLP decided policy and then appealed to the masses for support.

The most well known example of this approach came with the appointment of Sam Bond as the head of the Race Equality Unit. Sam Bond was a Militant supporter from London and his appointment was opposed by representatives of the local black community and the Liverpool Trades Council. The decision to push ahead with the appointment  regardless alienated sections of the black community in Liverpool and the trade unions who felt that Militant was putting its own narrow party interests ahead of building a broad campaign in support of the council.

Whatever the motivations for this approach by Militant and the non-Militant members of the 47, it was a serious mistake. Had the council and the DLP consciously set out to build mass democratic organisations and had they issued a call to such organisations to take control of the running of services, the running of schools and so on, then the Tories would have faced a far more formidable enemy than they did in 1987 when they were able to disbar the 47 from office with relative impunity.

There is less chance now of the left “capturing” the leadership of a local Labour Party, let alone one as strategically important as Liverpool. Nevertheless, we have already seen a recurrence of the far left’s use of the same concept of “the leading role of the party” today – by the SWP in its “Right to Work Campaign”, by the ex-SWP leaders of Counterfire in their “Coalition of Resistance” and of the Socialist Party, which set up a third anti-cuts campaign via its control of the National Shop Stewards Network.

The lesson of the defeat in Liverpool under the leadership of the DLP is that the left needs to set aside its obsession with front organisations whose hallmark is absolute control by a particular faction. They put off thousands of potential fighters even where they manage to hornswoggle a few hundred.

We need to build genuinely independent, mass democratic anti-cuts organisations that embrace those within and without the established parties, that draw in hundreds and thousands of activists who remain suspicious of the bureaucratic legacy of twentieth century left politics. Such campaigning rank and file organisations need to taste their own power and become imbued with a confidence and belief in their own role, the better to fight to the end, and win.

Militant’s view of revolution

Which brings us to Militant’s conception of how to bring about fundamental social change – a view put to the test in Liverpool where it had won leadership of the Labour Party. Our criticism of Militant then was that their years of entryism in the Labour Party had blunted their revolutionary edge.

In order to stay in the party at all costs they evolved a theory of revolutionary change that could be accommodated inside a reformist party. They embraced a top down, parliamentary conception of change. The leadership would “enable” change in either the council chamber or parliament and the masses would be mobilised to support this top down change.

A key leader of Militant, and now of the Socialist Party, was Peter Taaffe. He spelt out Militant’s view of social change quite clearly: “. . . in the pages of Militant, in pamphlets and in speeches we have shown that the struggle to establish a socialist Britain can be carried through in parliament backed up by the colossal power of the labour movement outside.” (4) This was no isolated statement. It was at the heart of Militant’s approach. And in Liverpool it was carried into practice once the Council was elected. The councillor did not say to the working class of the city – “over to you”. Instead it said, we have decided this course of action, support us.

Of course the action the council took, especially in 1983, was courageous. It defied the Tory government and demanded the government provide funds to meet the needs budget it had set. So far so good. The council then had a choice – when it was attacked it could have declared all out war on the Tories and called on the masses to engage in an indefinite general strike to force the government to retreat.

This would have meant actively dissolving the antiquated and bureaucratic machinery of local government and establishing the elements of working class rule in the city. Far fetched? Given the DLP had declared it was under Marxist leadership and prepared to fight to the end, clearly not.

However, this was not the course of action taken by the council. It went half way towards it, calling mass demonstrations which numbered tens of thousands, supporting strikes by council workers and others and organising democratic consultations with the working class of the city over changes. All of this was good – but still within the framework of capitalist legality.

But at the same time it sought to maintain the council in power by striking a deal with the government over the budget. The deal enabled the council to carry out important election pledges, but it was a compromise that left the city well short of the money it needed. A Financial Times journalist summarised the deal as: “The fact is that Liverpool’s muscle won, but less than it might have done, and the government lost, but not as much as it might have done . . . For its part Liverpool made substantial concessions too and any claims to the contrary are simply disingenuous.” (5)

The compromise provided Liverpool with £17 million – still £13 million short of the budget it required to meet its pledges. What followed was a period of creative accounting by Tony Byrne, and later loans from Swiss banks in order to keep the council afloat.

Throughout the negotiations that led to this compromise the council had mobilised the extra parliamentary power of the workers – notably in a massive public sector strike in its support. But this was orchestrated and limited action being used to strengthen the council’s hand in negotiations with the government. It was not independent working class action setting the terms for any deal.

The workers were a supporting cast – and Derek Hatton, the Deputy Leader, was very much the star. Looking back at every piece of footage this is clear. We hear far too much from Hatton and not enough from the workers. The result was that the support amongst the working class drained away. In 1985 workers voted not to strike and both the government and the Labour leadership sensed things could be moving in their direction.

They both moved against the council in a combined legal attack and political witchhunt. They found that the councillors’ failure to capitalise on the mass support they had in 1983/84 by turning it into an all out struggle against Thatcher by the working class of the city had led to things going off the boil. The council was now receiving less support from the very people who had been the “extra parliamentary” army the previous year.

The lesson is that the working class must never be used as “extra support” a stage army marched out to strengthen the negotiators’ hand. Their independent struggle is always and under all circumstances more important than the battles, negotiations and deals struck in either parliament or the council chamber. The independent strength of the working class in struggle will give rise to a new politics in which decisions are made by the democratic organisations of the strikers, the communities and the campaigns not by the parliamentarians either locally or nationally.

National not local battle

Finally we come to the council’s view of its own struggle. It set the limits of its campaign around the borders of the city. It was a battle that pitched militant Liverpool against Thatcher’s London regime. It aroused tremendous civic pride and fierce loyalty to the council by people who were suffering 24% unemployment at the time and enduring  some of the worst housing conditions in Europe.

The council quite rightly mobilised the famous sense of city patriotism felt by the Liverpool working class and directed it towards progressive ends. There was nothing wrong with that except . . . The backcloth to the major budget crisis and struggle in the city in 1984 was the great national Miners’ Strike. Thatcher was at war, quite literally, with the best organised and most militant section of the working class. This battle, as every socialist knew at the time, would shape the entire future of the class struggle in the country. For that reason every socialist worth their salt tried to do one thing – join up every local and sectional struggle into one class front against the Tories and alongside the miners.

Thatcher was well aware of this and staved off the danger by deliberately making concessions to other workers to ensure they did not start striking alongside the miners. Rail workers got one of their best ever pay deals. In the face of two dock strikes, concessions to port workers were made by the Tories. Pay rises were sprinkled across the public sector.

Everywhere a Labour and trade union bureaucracy terrified of the miners’ struggle becoming generalised jumped at the compromises on offer and kept their men and women out of the order of battle. Everywhere the possibilities of opening a second front against the Tories to help the miners were closed off.

In these circumstances Liverpool City Council, which was being offered a compromise by the Tories in order to keep it separated from a generalised struggle alongside the miners, had a duty to reject all offers and declare solidarity with the miners under the banner of “Liverpool’s fight is the miners’ fight – united we can win”. This was not only a duty but offered the only perspective of Liverpool winning. A united struggle could have crippled or defeated Thatcher, reaching a shoddy compromise with her one year, allowed her to defeat the miners and return to the attack the next.

The level of support for the council and for the miners in the city was phenomenal. In the spring of 1984 Everton and Liverpool played each other at Wembley in a League Cup Final. North London was flooded with over 100,000 Scousers wearing their teams’ colours and two stickers: “I support our Council” and “Coal not Dole”. Many miners described the day as one of the best ever collections they had made to raise money for their strike.

A city united had the chance to forge a bond with a union waging a life and death battle for the future of the movement. It did not take that opportunity. It took the money on offer from the government and took the working class of the city out of the line of fire.

A year later, when the workers of the city voted not to strike in September 1985 and ill-thought out tactics were used to try and delay the consequences of the financial crisis that had gripped the city, the miners were back at work, defeated. Thatcher, and the right of the Labour Party, could turn on Liverpool fresh from the victory over the miners. And Liverpool – the city that dared to fight – now found itself alone.

The 47 stood firm and put up a brave fight, Tony Byrne set to work negotiating fresh loans, but terrible damage had been caused by the separation of the city’s fight from the miners’ fight. The end result was that not only did Liverpool find itself fighting alone as the auditors and witchhunters moved in during 1985/86, so too did the councillors. The demonstrations that had once numbered tens of thousands dwindled to hundreds as confusion and demoralisation set in as the scale of the defeat became clearer. Just as the miners had, for a time, believed they could go it alone, so had Liverpool.

For daring to fight it should always be remembered as a heroic struggle. But its defeat carried the all important lesson of the need for class wide unity to triumph over sectoral struggles.

And this, perhaps, is the most important lesson of all for today – the cuts are an attack on all of us, no matter who gets sacked or what gets closed first. We need to be conscious of the need to fight them together and use each sectional struggle that occurs as the starting point for developing a class wide battle to defeat the government’s polices and bring it down.

The city wide strike in Liverpool in 1984 could have – and should have – been a building block for a nationwide general strike alongside the miners. It should not have been only the means of winning a local and sectoral battle.

All of that said the 47 stand head and shoulders above the Labour councillors today who, faced with the Tory demand for cuts, meekly reply “how much”?

1             see http://www.liverpool47.org

2             The Politics of Local Socialism, p 91, John Gyford, London 1985

3             Labour, a tale of two parties, p. 131, Hilary Wainwright, London, 1987

4            Militant International Review, No. 22, p28

5             Financial Times, 17 July 1984

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