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Liverpool - A City That Dared to Fight

Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn


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About the Authors

Liverpool - A City That Dared to FightBorn in Birkenhead, and active in the labour movement since 1960, Peter Taaffe has been editor of Militant since its inception in 1964. He was expelled after 23 years membership, from the Labour Party along with the four other members of the Militant Editorial Board. Closely involved in the events in Liverpool 1983-87 as the editor of Militant and making many visits, speaking at meetings in the city throughout the crisis, he writes with the analytical eye of an editor and with the passionate feeling for events as an expatriate Merseysider.

Active in his trade union, the National Graphic Association, since starting work, Tony Mulhearn joined the Labour Party in Liverpool in 1963. He was Vice-President of the District Labour Party for 8 years, then its President for a further 5 years. Elected to the Liverpool City Council in 1984, he soon became a key figure in the council struggle, combining his position on the council with the presidency of the Liverpool District Labour Party, until his expulsion from the Labour Party after a Spanish Inquisition style inquiry in 1986. Tony Mulhearn was one of the 47 councillors surcharged and disqualified from office by the unelected district auditor in March 1987.

Acknowledgements

The authors have received help from many comrades and friends, too numerous to mention here. However, the following deserve special acknowledgement for their encouragement, work, criticism and advice, without which this book would not have seen the light of day: Liz Floyd for her self-sacrifice and unflagging energy in typing the many manuscripts. Kevin Parslow for his devotion to exacting research, checking and certification of facts and events. Without his intrepid qualities this book would certainly not have been produced at an early date. Kevin Ramage whose energy and drive have ensured publication. Margaret Edwards and Ginny Armstrong for editorial assistance and the reading of the manuscript. Ted Grant and Lynn Walsh for their most valuable comments and criticisms. 

We would also wish to thank all our Liverpool comrades whose sterling work over the years, devotion to the cause of socialism and the working class made this book possible. We would particularly like to thank Richard Venton, Dave Cotterill, Terry Harrison and Sam Bond for their comments and suggestions and Tony Aitman for putting at our disposal his historical knowledge and documents relating to the history of the Liverpool labour movement. Last but not least a special word of thanks to those comrades whose technical skills and labour ensured that we published on time.

Preface

Liverpool - a City that Dared to Fight. Cover by Alan HardmanSince 1979 the conditions and rights of working people appear to have been crushed by the Thatcher juggernaut. In reality, the working class has put up ferocious opposition to the Tory government. This reached its height in the titanic year-long miners' strike of 1984-5 and in the stand of the Liverpool City Council between 1983-7.

Liverpool - a City that Dared to Fight. Book cover by Alan Hardman

But whereas the miners' strike has been the subject of detailed examination and comment, mostly of a superficial and facile character by capitalist journalists, a veil of silence has been drawn over the drama which unfolded in Liverpool. Much abuse, verbal and written, has poured down on the heads of the 'Liverpool Militants.'

 But until now not one account has been published which seeks objectively to appraise the mighty sweep of events which surrounded this embattled city. One academic, though useful, work – Michael Parkinson's Liverpool on the Brink, mainly dealing with the financial aspect, was published in 1985. And yet here is a city of half a million, formerly a major seaport of the mighty 'British Empire', which witnessed a convulsive movement of the working class and compelled the 'Iron Lady' to beat a retreat in 1984. 

No other section of the British working class, apart from the miners in 1981, humbled the government in such a fashion. Moreover, as the press has never ceased to remind us, the leadership of that movement involved adherents to the ideas of Militant, the Marxist wing of the labour movement. How did Militant supporters like Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton come to wield such influence in Liverpool?

Capitalist commentators either ascribed the rise of Militant in the city to an 'aberration' or alleged that it was the product of some sinister 'coup'. The more serious strategists of capital, however, were shaken by the upheavals in Liverpool. They were confronting a mass movement, but one in which the strategy and tactics deployed by the leadership were more than a match for their own. All the forces at their disposal, which unfortunately included the right wing of the labour and trade union movement, were marshalled in order to crush the 'Liverpool experiment'.

However, their plans were to founder again and again on the rock solid support which the Liverpool working class extended to the city council, the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) and to its leadership. It is a historical fact that not one city wide council or general election in Liverpool was lost by Labour from 1983 to 1987. On the contrary, support for Labour was immeasurably stronger in 1987 than it was at the outset of the struggle. It was not the will of the population of Liverpool which led to the eviction of 47 councillors from office in March 1987. This was only achieved by the deployment of the full panoply of the capitalist legal system.

At the same time, the possessing classes attempted with all the enormous means at their disposal through the media to heap one slander upon another in order to deflect attention from the real achievements in housing, health, education, as well as in the heightened political awareness of the working class of Liverpool. It is the task of the authors to rescue these achievements from the mountains of lies and vilification, particularly those piled on the leaders of the struggle, and bring them before the attention of conscientious readers who are prepared to study and learn from the experiences of Liverpool.

While we desire the widest readership possible, we are above all concerned to capture the attention of the working people, particularly of the guiding layers of the working class in the shop stewards' committees, the trade-union branches, among the socialist youth, blacks, and the exploited working-class women. These are for us 'the salt of the earth', the layer of the population which will ultimately shape the future of the mighty British labour movement and thereby the fate of British society. 

It is for this reason that we have not burdened our text with numerous notes which would only bother and distract working-class readers in particular. Needless to say, every fact which is quoted has been verified by the authors while the sources of quotations are given in the text. Insofar as we refer to ourselves it is in the third person.

The authors have been passionately involved in the struggles of the working class of Liverpool: Tony Mulhearn was vice-president of the Liverpool District Labour Party for 8 years, then its president for 5 years and a city councillor from 1984 until his removal by the District Auditor in 1987. Peter Taaffe has participated, as a writer editing Militant since its inception in 1964, and as a political collaborator for over 20 years of those who were in the leadership of this struggle.

It is possible, if not inevitable, that this work will meet with perhaps as much vilification from the opponents of Marxism as the leadership of the Liverpool labour movement itself. No doubt we will be attacked for a lack of 'impartiality' which, it is claimed, is the hallmark of 'real history'. Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, long ago answered such objections:

The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies – open and undisguised – seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the casual laws of their movement. 

That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and tested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself. (History of the Russian Revolution)

It is up to the reader to judge how far we have met Trotsky's criteria. Our aim is to give not just a simple narrative of events, although that in itself is of historic interest, but to show the hidden processes which in the welter of publicity were hidden from view and have been smeared over by bourgeois journalists, writers and their shadows in the labour movement. Our aim is to show that the growth of a powerful Marxist tendency within the city was not at all an accident or the result of a takeover of 'moribund' Labour Parties. The growth of Militant was rooted in the collapse of British capitalism, which was expressed in a particularly extreme fashion in the early 1980s on Merseyside.

However, it takes more than just economic and social collapse to rouse the working people to their feet in their tens of thousands as in the Liverpool drama. The city experienced one mass demonstration, one mass meeting after another, and a number of partial or general strikes over a four-year period. Not since the time of the colossal 1911 transport strike had the city witnessed such mass involvement. Without an authoritative leadership which can gather the opposition of the working masses together, provide clear direction, tactical adroitness, and organizational forms through which the working class can express itself, mass discontent can be very easily dissipated. It was the interlacing of the objective factors with the 'subjective factor' of a Marxist leadership which invested the struggle in Liverpool with such a tenacity, and which provided its tremendous sweep and ιlan.

Both in the ascendant phase from 1983-5 and in the period of partial retreat in 1986-7, the ruling class and the right wing of the labour movement were time and again wrong-footed by the Liverpool labour movement. The premature political obituaries both of the Liverpool working class, and particularly of Militant and its supporters, were written and rewritten many times. But time and again the strategists of capital and the right wing of the labour movement were out-manoeuvred. Gradually it was borne in on them that they were confronting something different from what they had faced in the past. This is what accounts for the venom which was unleashed against the leaders of the Liverpool workers, which outdid in its class spite even that deployed against the miners' leadership during their epic struggle.

But they were not able to break the spirit nor check the growth of Militant within Liverpool. It is true that the right wing of the labour movement, under the ship of the bourgeois press, have manages laboriously to construct what they consider to be a 'safe' Labour council and Liverpool District Labour Party. But this is not due to any change in the consciousness either of the advanced workers or of the mass of the working class: it is the result of a crude purge combined with bureaucratic machination to exclude 'undesirables' from the labour movement and throughout the country. The weekly donation of workers to pay off the £348,000 fine and costs is witness to this fact.

The struggle of the 47 councillors has added a new chapter to the rich history of the Liverpool working class, which goes back over a period of more than 100 years. As we have only been able to touch on the main highlights in our introductory chapters we intend to produce a fuller account at a later stage.

The bureaucratic and police mentality – and the Liverpool labour movement has had more than its fair share of these in the past – believes that by manoeuvres and administrative fiat the position of the right wing can be shored up forever. 

But more than once the movement of the Liverpool workers has elbowed the conservative officialdom aside and begun to transform their organisations. There will be ebbs, in which the conservative stratum which dominates the summits of the labour movement will appear to strengthen their grip. But in periods of upsurge, when faced with the mass movement this layer has been as helpless as a leaf in high wind.

The Liverpool workers, as well as working people throughout the country, are digesting the experiences of the last ten years, particularly of the miners' strike and the events of 1983-7 on Merseyside. The collapse of British capitalism, which was partially obscured by a credit boom prior to the 1987 General Election, will be enormously compounded by the coming world recession. 

This in turn will result in a sharp deterioration in the living standards of big layers of the British working class. In their millions they will move to defend their rights and into fighting instruments. In this process they will turn – particularly the new, fresh and energetic layers – for inspiration to the past struggles of the working class. 

In the miners' strike and above all in the study of the Liverpool experience these workers will find the weapons to carve out a new world. We hope that this account of Liverpool's struggle can play its part in the rearming of the British working class for the mighty battles to come.

Peter Taaffe Tony Mulhearn

December 1987

 

Continued...

 

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