WITH THE ending of the miners’ strike Thatcher was free to concentrate on isolating and defeating Liverpool’s Labour council. Michael Parkinson in his book Liverpool on the Brink states:
The government was soon preparing its next round of measures against local councils.
Many councils were compelled by force of circumstances to consider taking the ‘Liverpool road’ and illegal defiance of the government. The common position of a number of councils led to a united front in late 1984 between Liverpool and other authorities which had been ratecapped. A debate opened up among the leaders of the ratecapped councils as to which tactic for fixing the annual rate, due to be set in March 1985, could best mobilise the undoubted opposition which existed to the government’s policies.
Liverpool’s method of setting a rate that left the deficit in the budget, presenting a clear demand on the government to give more resources to the council to make up the difference, had shown in practice that it was an excellent means of mobilising the mass of the working class for battle as it was clear what the aims of the fight were.
The ‘trendy left’ of Ken Livingstone from the Greater London Council, David Blunkett in Sheffield and Margaret Hodge, leader of Islington council, counterposed to this their own tactic of the ‘no rate’ policy: the idea being that the council would refuse to set the local property tax, known then as the rates. This would eventually lead to the position of each council being different, making it virtually impossible to harmonise the precise date when all councils were to face bankruptcy. Moreover, the ‘no rate’ policy was a negative one, leaving the initiative in the government’s hands.
There was also another profound difference between Liverpool’s approach and that of the other ‘left’ councils. Liverpool completely opposed the idea of off-setting government grant cuts by massively increasing rates. The advocates of the ‘no rate’ policy were not. Despite the misgivings and warnings of Militant, Liverpool went ahead with the ‘no rate’ policy in the interests of a common front against the government. Twenty-five councils had decided to make a common stand against the government.
In the run-up to budget day plans were laid for the mobilisation of workers in Liverpool to coincide with a stoppage of local government workers nationally on 7 March. Once more, a mass demonstration of 50,000 marched on the Town Hall, "one of the biggest in a hundred years", declared Tony Mulhearn. At the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) meeting some Labour members joined with the Tories and the SDP to push through a legal rate after eight hours of debate.
Then the GLC, headed by Ken Livingstone, led the retreat of other councils. Despite all his heroic words and gestures he led the majority of London Labour councillors into the position of "remaining within the law" by setting a rate and budget which would mean cuts. This represented a turninig point in the struggle of Labour authorities against the government.
The GLC’s opposition was merely verbal and was a repetition of the climbdown in 1982 when the Law Lords ruled against the ‘Fares Fair’ cheap transport policy. Militant subjected the GLC leadership to severe criticism:
But he totally ignored the fact that three days before the GLC finally set a rate, one council, Hackney, had already gone ‘illegal’ by refusing to set a rate in defiance of a court order to do so. Moreover, the GLC manifesto for the 1981 election had declared:
This section of the manifesto had been written by Militant supporters but was supported by the London Labour movement as a whole.
Militant MPs under attack
Terry Fields was earning the well-merited hatred of the Tories and the ruling class. By the same token, his standing and that of Dave Nellist also rose enormously amongst the working class.
They used Parliament in a way that Labour should always seek to do, as a platform to organise and mobilise working people in struggle. Taking alarm at the growing popularity of these two MPs, and particularly their decision to live on no more than the average wage of a skilled worker, the right-wing Labour Party leadership actually tried to stop them giving money back to the party out of their parliamentary salaries.
Their stand, along with that of NUM-sponsored MP Dennis Skinner who gave all of his salary to the miners for the duration of the strike, had earned them enormous popularity.
This incident showed the fear of the right wing of the demand for a worker’s MP on a worker’s wage. Their attacks on Dave Nellist and Terry Fields were made against the background of a serious financial crisis for the Labour Party. But it was all part of the campaign of the press, TV and radio, backed by the right within the party, to break the leftward movement in the Labour Party, typified by the battle which now revolved around Liverpool. The NEC also conducted an investigation into Coventry South-East in 1984, centred around Dave Nellist’s victory! We warned the labour movement about the coming offensive:
In July the Welsh executive of the Labour Party expelled Tony Wedlake, an LPYS representative, and Chris Peace, who had actually topped the poll at the Welsh Labour Party conference in elections to the executive committee.
Liverpool - deadline approaches
Despite this, Liverpool, where Militant still had its strongest base, was set on a collision course with the government. Right up to the day that the council was supposed to set a ‘legal’ rate, the government had been confident that Liverpool would come to heel in the wake of the capitulation of the other councils.
On 13 May, Patrick Jenkin repeated his early refusal to talk to the council. John Hamilton, leader of the Labour group, angrily declared: "If he came to Liverpool to try and explain his policies, then his ideas would be slaughtered." (4) By the end of May four councils were holding out on the ‘no rate’ policy: Southwark, Camden, Liverpool and Lambeth. On 22 May the District Auditor threatened the Liverpool councillors with heavy fines and banishment from office unless they set a rate within nine days.
As crunch time approached, both the government and the Liverpool Echo expected the council to capitulate. There was of course serious discussion amongst Militant supporters at local and national level and within the local labour movement as to what course of action should be pursued.
At the end of these debates, with the collapse of the ‘no rate’ front, it was concluded that the only course of action was to confront the government. At the eleventh hour, on 11 June, the city council once more appealed for discussions with Jenkin.
He refused, hoping to see Labour eat dirt and relishing the prospect that this time round he would be "dancing on Derek Hatton’s grave." In an editorial Militant urged Liverpool to stand firm and at its historic meeting on 13 June the District Labour Party unanimously agreed to set a nine per cent rate - no higher than the real rate of inflation and with no cuts.
Nearly all the Labour councillors were there, and there was not one dissenting voice at the meeting when this policy was advocated. Moreover, any last minute hesitations were dispelled the next day when Thomas MacMahon, the District Auditor, sent a letter saying: "A crime had already been committed" and he was going to act against them (the councillors) for losses incurred between 1 April and June. Thus any potential defectors were dissuaded from such a course by the fact that even if they betrayed Labour, they could still be surcharged.
Rarely had the Liverpool labour movement been so united. With a nine per cent rate and with a government refusal to give further grants, it was quite clear the city would run out of money at a certain stage.
Labour was not setting out to deliberately bankrupt the city but intended to use the time available to mobilise the population and to appeal nationally to local authority workers to exert pressure on the government.
Initially stunned by the decision of Liverpool to stand and fight, once they understood what had happened, the government and the press then launched a furious offensive against the Liverpool labour movement. The air was thick with denunciations of Liverpool and threats to send in the government agents, government commissioners.
The District Auditor, with semi-dictatorial powers, also decided to surcharge the 49 Labour councillors £106,000 for "wilful misconduct". This only served to galvanise support behind the Labour council.
The mass support for the council was linked to the fact that the people of the city could see the effects around them of what a fighting Labour council meant. Sometimes even the Echo would carry a letter, from unusual sources, recording the progress that had been made:
The paper and its supporters enjoyed strong support in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
In fact, prominent Scottish Militant supporters came close to winning positions as Labour Parliamentary candidates. In Provan constituency Ronnie Stevenson, stalwart of Militant for over 20 years, stood for selection against Hugh Brown the sitting MP in 1982 but was defeated by 31 votes to 24.
In 1985 Jim Cameron, one of the ablest representatives of Militant’s views and a prominent trade unionist, stood for the vacant seat following Brown’s retirement. He was defeated by just one vote by Jimmy Wray at the selection conference. Other Militant supporters came close to selection in a number of constituencies in London, Gateshead East, Swansea, Southampton and Greenwich.
The Redundancy Notices
Some of these former lefts were to play a baleful role in the Liverpool drama which came to a head in September and at the Labour Party conference soon after. One of the issues which was seized on by all the enemies of Liverpool council and Militant was that of the so-called ‘redundancy notices’. (We have fully dealt with this issue in Liverpool - a City That Dared to Fight.)
Faced with resources running out, the Labour Group had made contingency plans after legal and financial experts had advised that under the 1978 Employment Protection Act, once the money ran out, they would have been forced to terminate the contracts of all council employees.
Failure to do so could have left the councillors personally liable for the £23 million ‘redundancy pay’ to which the 30,000 local authority workers were entitled. Under local government law, a council cannot lay off workers but has to terminate their contracts, which in affect is redundancy.
Moreover, the City Treasurer advised that failure to act ‘legally’ by issuing the redundancy notices would have resulted in the Public Works Loan Board refusing permission for Liverpool to raise loans on the money market to pay for day-to-day expenditure. This in turn would have meant that the council would have run out of money within a few weeks.
Therefore workers would receive no wages after this period. The ‘legal’ device of redundancy notices would at least allow wages to be paid until the end of 1985. This would have allowed time to build a campaign to force the government to pay back the cash stolen from the city.
The ruling class has deliberately framed local government law in order to entangle councils in such legal niceties. If the Liverpool council had been made up entirely of Militant supporters, which it was not, this course of action would not have been adopted as the Marxists would have gone the whole way.
But the councillors felt let down, particularly by the refusal of the white-collar union leaders to fully back them. The Labour Group decided to use the ‘tactic’ of issuing 90-day notices to the 30,000-strong workforce to ensure a breathing space in order to build the campaign. It was absurd to suggest, as the press did, and to their shame the national trade union leaders, that 30,000 workers were to be sacked. The whole point of this exercise was to defend jobs. However, the issuing of redundancy notices turned out to be a major tactical error.
The great military strategist Clausewitz once said: "Military warfare needs the kind of mathematics of a Euclid or a Newton." More simply, political algebra is necessary. For anybody leading a major political struggle, it is necessary to visualise, not just how the active workers will view the problem, but how your enemies can exploit your statements, strategy and tactics.
When this tactic was explained to those workers who could be reached there was support and understanding. This was the case amongst the great majority of manual workers.
For the wider population of Liverpool and on a national plane and even the majority of the 30,000 local authority workforce they got their information from the fragments of news snatched from the television and the press. As soon as the issue of ‘redundancy notices’ was raised a massive hue and cry was set up by the national press. The ‘redundancy notices’ issue split the leaders of the council workforce.
Many white-collar workers were genuinely concerned that if their contracts were terminated, and in the meantime the threat of surcharge brought a Liberal/Tory Coalition to power, many would not be re-employed. The tactic of ‘redundancy notices’ was taken without the prior knowledge and support either from the local Militant or national leadership.
In Merseyside, as well, the majority of Militant supporters were opposed to this tactic. Although Militant exercised a powerful influence on the Liverpool struggle it was by no means automatic for our viewpoint to be accepted. As soon as we heard, via radio and television, that this ‘tactic’ had been resorted to we expressed our opposition.
However, this did not take the form of a ‘public denunciation’ but of seeking to explain why the councillors thought that they had been compelled to take this action.After a series of debates the Joint Shop Stewards Committee on the 7 September rejected the ‘redundancy plan’. It was now clear that the council could run out of money not in December but in a matter of weeks.
Liverpool’s actual record
The most disgraceful feature of the ‘redundancy notices’ issue was the completely disloyal backstabbing methods of the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders, led by Kinnock at the Labour Party conference a few weeks later. It remains an incontestable historical fact that Liverpool’s socialist council did not carry through one single redundancy. Indeed, it created more than 2,000 jobs, built 4,000 council houses with front and back gardens, sports centres and even a park.
The same claims could not be made by those who denounced Militant and Liverpool city council over the ‘redundancy notices’ tactic. In Sheffield, for instance, those like David Blunkett who subsequently pilloried Militant carried through a retrenchment programme which eliminated many thousands of local government jobs. The same story was repeated elsewhere.
Once the option of the ‘redundancy notices’ was defeated the Joint Shop Stewards Committee met and proposed an all-out strike to force the government to aid the council. We commented:
Pointing to the frenzied headlines in the capitalist press, we warned:
The Daily Mail even painted a lurid picture of those in council care and ‘approved schools’ being evacuated "to the Isle of Man". Kenneth Baker, the Environment Secretary who had replaced the hapless Jenkin, denied the government were considering the possible use of troops in the event of council services collapsing, but admitted:
The decision to go for all-out strike action initiated a period of unprecedented and widespread political debate that spread far beyond the council workforce to all corners of the city. The pioneers of Trotskyism in the city in the 1930s had wistfully looked towards the day when a mass meeting under their influence would take place in the Liverpool boxing stadium.
Now the outline of this scenario was beginning to take shape. One section of the workforce after another trooped toward the stadium to discuss and debate the merits and demerits of an all-out strike. Local cafe owners and pubs ran out of food and beer as workers poured into and out of the stadium.
Unfortunately, the teachers voted narrowly not to come out on strike. This caused great bitterness amongst other workers and was a considerable boost to the government and the opponents of the council.
The leadership of the teachers at this stage, was typified by Jim Ferguson, a member of the Communist Party. GMBATU members however, in a series of mass meetings, voted by 4345 to 2934 in favour of all-out strike action.
UCATT’s shop stewards voted by 54 to four to recommend strike action which was upheld at mass meetings. The TGWU also voted by a massive majority in favour. The majority of manual workers had now voted in favour of strike action. 58 per cent of GMBATU members voted for strike action.
UCATT members voted by three to one and the TGWU also voted by a majority to come out on strike. Of the manual unions only the EETPU, had voted against. Therefore, the decision as to whether the council workforce would undertake an all-out struggle lay in the balance pending a decision of the leaders of NUPE and NALGO. ‘Ultra-democrat’ Jane Kennedy of NUPE refused even to sanction a vote on the issue amongst the 2,700 NUPE members. Her behaviour was not lost on low-paid NUPE members whose jobs were at stake in this battle.
In the aftermath of the 25 September strike these workers, many of them very low-paid women workers, almost mobbed Jane Kennedy at an unprecedented NUPE branch meeting.
Hundreds turned out, blocking Dale Street and forcing the NUPE leadership to abandon the meeting. It was NALGO leaders Graham Burgess and Peter Creswell who played a crucial role in relation to a call for a strike on 25 September. They were on record in favour of strike action but did absolutely nothing to campaign in favour. On the contrary they expressed negative feelings about the effectiveness of strike action.
At the mass meeting in the stadium, the NALGO leaders formerly put the motion for strike action, but were heavily defeated by 3,891 to 1,455.
7,200 make a stand
However, in view of the split in the labour force the councillors, heavily influenced by the arguments of Militant, had to take a fateful decision on the early evening of 24 September.
The question was posed: should the manual workers, despite being in a minority, unilaterally take strike action?
The manual workers had voted solidly in favour of strike action and would have been able to ‘tie up’ the city if they had come out. The caretakers alone could have closed all the schools in Liverpool. The only branch of the GMBATU which had voted against strike action was in the Education Department, which was led by Convenor Peter Lennard who was not a Militant supporter.
Indeed he was later to become an opponent of Militant, for a mixture of personal and political reasons. Amongst those sections of the workforce where Militant supporters were in strength or had a decisive influence, the case was put firmly and the majority of the workers, in a secret ballot, voted for strike action.
The total vote of all workers was 7,284 for strike action and 8,152 against. In this situation to have gone ahead with all-out strike action would have resulted in a split between the trade unions, with the possibility of conflicts on the picket lines, which would have been exploited by the press and all the opponents of the council.
Therefore, while saluting the workers who voted in favour of strike action, particularly the manual workers, the stewards recommended that the all-out strike be called off. Acquiescence to this decision was achieved with some difficulty.
Many council workers, such as members of the security force and cleansing workers who had most to lose if the council was defeated, congregated at the Town Hall to await the decision of the stewards. It also seemed as if the world’s media were gathered outside the Municipal Annexe that evening.
The press at one stage had to be protected from the anger of these workers, and only the intervention of Militant supporters from amongst the stewards, prevented a violent assault on the press corps. Frustrated in the call for all-out strike action the stewards of the manual workers then decided to recommend that a one-day strike go ahead the following day, 25 September. We commented:
The Labour and trade union leaders were determined to crush Liverpool and the dangerous example which showed that ‘militancy pays’. While in Liverpool, on the evening of 24 September, Anthony Bevins, The Times political correspondent, confided to a Militant supporter that Kinnock was planning a "bombshell" against us. Kinnock was confident that this would effectively eliminate the influence of Marxism in the city.
Fifteen months later, after Kinnock had tried every measure to undermine support for Militant the same Bevins, having shifted his journalistic allegiance, was to write: "He [Kinnock] had not broken the Trotskyists and never will". (11)
The issue of Militant dominated not just the Labour Party conference, but the Liberal, Tory and the SDP conferences. David Alton, Liberal Chief Whip, demanded that Neil Kinnock "expel Militant leaders of the council."
Four cabinet ministers at the Conservative Party conference, led by Tebbit and Thatcher, denounced Militant and Liverpool City Council. They also demanded that Neil Kinnock carry through the expulsion of Militant from the Labour Party. Indeed, Thatcher took it on herself in the House of Commons to taunt the Labour leadership and demand that they take action against the Marxists.Thatcher, on behalf of the capitalists was the real instigator of the witch-hunt against Militant.
Yet an opinion poll carried in the Sunday Times on 29 September showed that the electors of Liverpool would vote Labour by an overwhelming majority. 55 per cent said they would vote Labour, 34 per cent SDP/Liberal Alliance, and eleven per cent for the Tories. This represented an incredible nine per cent increase in Labour’s share of the vote since the 1984 elections.
Kinnock’s grotesque speech
But all of this was of secondary importance to Kinnock as he prepared to send a signal to the ruling class. Not one syllable of Kinnock’s tirade will be accorded any importance by history, save for his venomous assault on the heroic Liverpool city councillors which outdid even the Tories in its viciousness.
Not a word of support was uttered for the struggles of Liverpool council in defence of the workers of the city and yet not a word of criticism was made either about those Labour councils such as Rhondda, Newcastle or Wakefield, which had provoked strikes by privatisation, closure of nurseries and other cut backs. His infamous statement about the alleged "grotesque chaos of Labour councils hiring taxis to scuttle around the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workforce", produced pandemonium in the Conference Hall.
Eric Heffer, National Executive Committee member, and MP for Liverpool Walton, stormed off the platform. Boos and catcalls greeted Kinnock’s statement. While the Liverpool councillors were in power, from 1983 to 1987 not one worker was made redundant. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Neil Kinnock. In the autumn of 1987, he pushed for 40 real redundancies amongst staff at the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters.
Kinnock’s attack provoked widespread indignation throughout Liverpool. The council telephone exchange was jammed with calls of protest. It was interpreted by the great majority of Liverpudlians as yet another attack on the city. The whole Labour Group was united in its condemnation of Kinnock’s attack. Even right wingers like Roy Gladden and Joe Devaney, prospective parliamentary candidate for Mossley Hill, were at one with Militant supporters in repudiating Kinnock’s speech. The Liverpool Labour MPs were unanimous in their condemnation. Bob Parry, the Riverside MP, denounced Kinnock as the "biggest class traitor since Ramsey MacDonald". (12)
The capitalist press greeted Kinnock’s speech with hosannahs. The press were demanding not just action against Liverpool councillors and Militant but also against Bernie Grant: "Give Bernie Grant the boot", declared the Daily Express. (13)
At the Tory Party conference the following week Tebbit declared:
At the beginning of 1985 Labour stood at 38 per cent in the opinion polls. Two years later, after the assault on Militant, which went hand in hand with the jettisoning of left policies and the attack on the reselection of MPs, Labour’s popularity remained at the same level. It subsequently sank to 31 per cent in the June 1987 general election. The immediate effect of Kinnock’s speech was that it guaranteed Militant had the biggest and most successful meeting ever at a Labour Party conference:
The meeting was broadcast live on Channel Four News at 7 o’clock.
Kinnock attacks the miners
Kinnock followed up his attack on Liverpool with a dirty speech, which brought tears to the eyes of miners and their wives present in the conference hall, when he refused to support indemnification of the fines incurred by the miners’ union by a future Labour government. He also opposed the future lifting of the surcharge on the councillors in Liverpool and Lambeth. He claimed that no other government had ever acted in this fashion. Yet in 1975 the Labour Government had passed the Housing Finance (Special Provisions) Act to indemnify councillors fined and disqualified for failing to obey the Heath government’s Housing Finance Act obliging them to put up council rents. Because of a rebellion by the Labour right in the Commons, this legislation did not protect the Clay Cross councillors who had taken the lead in the rent struggle that year.
Despite Kinnock’s intervention, the conference passed a motion calling on a Labour government to recompense the miners and reinstate sacked miners. It also upheld an NEC resolution which promised indemnification for councillors. But the right wing and the capitalist press corps who were present in force were eagerly looking for the defeat of the motion supporting the Liverpool struggle.
The debate at the conference was one of the most rigged in the recent history of the labour movement. A number of right-wing speakers were lined up to lambast the council and Militant supporters. The only supporters of Liverpool allowed to speak in the debate were Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. The right wing could not prevent this since they were moving and seconding the motion.
Kinnock was not rewarded for his assault on Liverpool. On the contrary, more blood was demanded from him. Tebbit, in a debate in the House of Commons on 12 December noted:
And when the Labour leadership (energetically and verbally) protested at Tebbit’s tactics, he linked Kinnock with Liverpool’s ‘desperadoes’: "We have seen the attitudes and tactics of Militant Tendency tonight." (16)
Militant Rally at the Albert Hall
If the attack on Liverpool and Militant was meant to cower us it had the opposite affect. For the first time Militant had organised its National Rally at the Albert Hall.
Reporting on the event Militant stated:
Alongside myself and Ted Grant spoke Harry De Boer, veteran of the workers’ struggle in the USA, one of the pioneers of the flying pickets in the Minneapolis general strike of 1934 when he was shot in the leg. He had also met Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940 and was imprisoned for his opposition to the second world war. At the age of 80 Harry De Boer had not lost any of his socialist and revolutionary commitment, telling the rally:
Alongside him spoke Terry Fields who declared:
Jack Collins, the general secretary of the Kent NUM, declared:
This rally, which "broke all records", was the best answer to the venomous press campaign and that of the right wing of the Labour and trade union movement.