Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/872/21503
Lessons from the past: Liverpool City Council 1983-87
When a Labour council fought the Tories
From 1983 to 1987 Liverpool City Council was led by supporters of Militant (predecessor of the Socialist), who at the time were members of the Labour Party. When faced with cuts from central government, they refused to pass them on. Instead, with the slogan "better to break the law than break the poor" they made huge advances for working class people in Liverpool. At the same time they led a mass campaign which successfully demanded funding back from Thatcher's government.
Here we republish an edited version of an interview carried out last year with Tony Mulhearn, one of the councillors and leaders of the movement.
Now, no Labour council has acted in such a way. The Labour Party structures that Tony describes as vital in holding the councillors to account have been destroyed.
The interview gives an idea of what is possible when socialists are elected and also of the need for Jeremy Corbyn to re-democratise the Labour Party to give those who support his anti-cuts stand a say in the politics of the party's elected representatives.
When the council was elected big cuts were being made to council budgets by the Tory government. How did you avoid making them?
Between 1979 and 1983 the Tories had slashed £120 million from Liverpool City Council's budget. In addition to that the outgoing local Tory-Liberal administration had left unallocated cuts of £10 million and was making 2,000 redundancies.
We had the choice of either saying there's nothing we can do and implementing the cuts or to fight back. We chose not to implement the cuts and instead to set a 'needs budget', and we launched a fighting campaign.
So, we were in the position that councillors are in today, but we took an entirely different stance.
Militant supporters were not actually a majority on the council - how did your ideas get carried through?
In those days the local party determined policy. Militant and its predecessors had conducted a campaign over decades inside Liverpool Labour Party for the adoption of socialist policies. And that's what the District Labour Party (DLP) did, it adopted socialist policies.
And in those days when the party had determined the policy, the councillors had to carry it out. So the DLP concretised what was contained in Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution (its socialist commitment) in relation to housing, jobs and services - all of which the council then implemented.
What were the biggest achievements of the council?
We built 5,000 houses and flats - gardens back and front in many cases. We demolished some of the worst housing in Western Europe. We then cancelled all monetary cuts and redundancies planned by the outgoing council. We built six new nursery schools. We expanded council services.
We had apprenticeships for council jobs. At one stage we had something like 16,000 workers engaged in council projects. So in effect we translated socialism into the language of jobs, the language of houses, the language of nursery schools.
How did the councillors link up with trade unions and working class people in the city?
The DLP was a fine, democratic organisation. It was made up of trade unions, women's committees, the Young Socialists, party branches and constituency parties, the Co-ops - all had delegates to the DLP. And that was the spring board we used to reach out to wider sections of the working class.
On that basis we were able to mobilise tens of thousands at the demonstrations. And on three occasions 30,000 council workers took strike action to defend the policies of the council.
So this notion peddled by the right wing in the Labour Party, like former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and supported by the capitalist press, that it was some kind of tiny group which had captured control of the council, was nonsense. We couldn't have achieved what we did without mass support from the labour movement and wider working class communities.
How did the right wing respond to your success?
They generated a campaign of hysteria in the capitalist press.
Thatcher's minister Norman Tebbit used his position in Parliament to demand of Kinnock - 'what was Labour going to do about the Liverpool extremists?' Bowing to this pressure Kinnock launched a savage attack on Liverpool at the 1985 Labour Party conference.
Shortly after, Labour's right wing suspended the DLP, this was preceded by the unelected District Auditor's decision to fine and remove the 47 fighting Labour councillors from office.
Kinnock then proceeded to conduct the most horrendous witch-hunt against not only Militant supporters but also any lefts who supported building houses and creating jobs.
Nonetheless the socialist legacy of that movement continues in Liverpool to this day.
In The Socialist 30 September 2015:
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