A Trial of Strength
The resolve of the leadership of the Liverpool labour movement, particularly of the Marxists, was clear and communicated itself to the working class of the city.
In the early part of 1984 another round of mass meetings took place. On 27 February a huge rally of 1700 trade-union representatives and activists was held in St. George’s Hall and speakers included Ron Todd of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Local authority workers were represented alongside those from private industry, from Fords, Vauxhall, etc. ‘We won’t budge’ was the mood of the meeting.
John Hamilton and Tony Benn received standing ovations for their speeches. Tony Bann declared at a further meeting on 24 March: ‘no gains for working-class people have ever been made without people taking risks and going outside the law’.
These meetings set the scene for the magnificent strike and demonstration on 29 March. On that day Liverpool witnessed one of the largest citywide general strikes in British history. 50,000 marched to a rally at the Town Hall in a crushing demonstration of the power and organisation of the Merseyside working class. This great demonstration of solidarity with the council drew in all sections of the labour movement and of the working class. Roars of approval followed the speeches from the balcony of the Town Hall. A representative from the Yorkshire miners, visibly moved by the demonstration declared: ‘The miners are in the same position as Liverpool council, and in both cases if we stay united we can’t be defeated.’
Terry Fields MP got a great reception from the crowd when he declared, ‘In 1921 in Poplar, 30 councillors were jailed for standing up for local workers. Like Liverpool it was a high unemployment docks area. Like some present day leaders, Herbert Morrison then told Poplar to stay inside the law.’ Terry Fields told the rally that they should join the Labour Party Young Socialists and the Labour Party. Bill Jones, speaking as the Chairperson of the Joint Shop Stewards Committee stated: ‘council workers helped return this socialist council. We are now fighting to save all jobs, and we’ve got the enthusiasm, the crowd exceeded that at a derby between Everton and Liverpool and it sang in football style: ‘Labour council, Labour council, we’ll support you ever more’.
Postal workers, firefighters, water workers, printers, car workers, builders, seafarers, dockers, hospital staff, civil servants, office workers, transport workers, shipbuilders and many other groups of workers joined the masses of council workers on the demonstration. Another impressive feature of the demonstration was the large participation of youth, including large contingents from the Further Education colleges. One woman on the march expressed the feelings of many that day: ‘We brought our kids along because it’s their future we’re fighting for. I think Kinnock should have been here today showing his support.’ Another worker said: ‘I am a steward in the Speke area and I’m out here in support of these people who are fighting for jobs, not just that, bur for education and jobs for our children.’ Another: ‘I am an unemployed heavy goods driver and I am 120 per cent for what the council is doing. We’ve got to have a go at this, otherwise we’ll really be on the floor.’
Knowsley NALGO came out on strike in support of their Liverpool brothers and sisters, and one worker commented: ‘There is no other option to supporting the council unless you want to go back to Victorian values – pay for this and pay for that. You can’t have Cruise [missiles] and have social services, it’s as simple as that.’ Teachers were also evident on the demonstration with a particularly striking banner being carried by members of the college lecturers’ union, NATFHE. They taught prisoners at Walton jail and their banner read, ‘Today we teach the real robbers.’ The ‘scabby seven’ needed a police escort into Town Hall – so much for their claim of popular support.
The debate in the council chamber reflected all the passion and commitment of irreconcilable opponents who are confronting each other across a class divide.
The debate was conducted against the background of the roars and chants of the crowd outside as well as the active participation of the workers in the packed public gallery. The Liberals in moving their budget pitched their appeal at one and the same time to the Tory government and Labour’s right wing. The figure of Neil Kinnock was invoked many times by the Liberals in the course of their contributions.
At one stage their spokesman Paul Clark thought he had made a telling point: ‘The Labour Party we see here in Liverpool is the Labour Party nationally in ten years time.’ He was somewhat nonplussed when the public gallery greeted this with a prolonged outburst of applause!
Labour councillors rose to the occasion and acted as real tribunes of the working class. The Liberals had talked about ‘natural wastage’. Pauline Dunlop in a forceful speech declared: ‘There is nothing natural about it… It is not us that creates chaos but capitalism. There are people dying unnecessarily whilst firms such as GEC announce record profits and lay off 1000 workers. We want an alternative, a planned socialist society where people can fully develop.’
The effect of such speeches was heightened by the fact that there was a continuous local radio transmission which was attentively followed by the majority of the population throughout the day. She went on to declare: ‘Listen to the people inside and outside the council chamber. They are saying no to a policy of despair.’
When Derek Hatton rose to speak he was greeted by cheers from the public gallery and applause punctuated his speech. The Liberals were staggered when he revealed that in the ward next to that of the Liberal spokesman Paul Clark, the Liberal candidate for the forthcoming council elections, Beryl Molyneux, had just resigned and was applying to join the Labour Party. He then made an indictment of capitalism as it was manifested in Liverpool. He referred to the television programme Brass Tacks. This had shown that a man living in Netherly, the ward he represented went to the DHSS to ask for a car to take his daughter’s body to the funeral. However he was told to take the coffin on his knee in the car he was travelling in!
The Labour council’s argument, explained Derek Hatton, centred around their demand for the £30 million shortfall, which was owing to Liverpool anyway, to be paid out of the government’s contingency funds. In the recent budget the Tories had given £35 million in tax handouts to 650,000 people already earning over £15,000 a year. He received an enormous cheer when he sat down after his onslaught on the Tories and Liberals. The Tories were not able to climb out of the gutter. Their leader Chris Hallows made a racist comment that Neil Kinnock had no backbone, ‘because he had a nigger in the woodpile, Tony Benn’. He refused to withdraw these remarks.
The sentiments of Labour’s opponents was that Labour could shout as much as they liked but as far as the government, the Labour leadership, not to say the Liberals and Tories were concerned everything was set up for a Labour defeat. By refusing to sanction a deficit budget the ‘rebel seven’ Labour councillors were going to swing the vote and save civilisation as we know it.
But all the best plans of mice and men go astray! Colossal pressure was being exerted by the people of Liverpool through the partial general strike and demonstration outside the Town Hall. Labour’s opponents did not wish to be seen as the willing accomplices of the Tory government and the six rebel Labour councillors (one was not at the meeting) were not yet ready to associate themselves with the savage cuts foreshadowed in both the Liberal and Tory alternative budgets. The ‘rebels’ voted with the Labour group against these budgets, but then a motion to adjourn until 11 April to allow a deal to be cobbled up between the six, the Liberals and the Tories was passed.
Labour proposed as an emergency measure that a small, all-Labour committee be established to allow essential services to be funded up to the 11 April meeting. The Liberals and Tories waxed indignant. They declared that they were the masters now, as Labour’s budget had been defeated. But even the six found this hard to swallow and voted with Labour to establish the all-Labour emergency committee.
The motion now consisted of two parts: For a recalled council meeting on 11 April and for an interim all-Labour emergency committee until then. The Tories and Labour’s right wing decided to vote in favour as they wanted a recall meeting to try to force through a budget before the May local elections. Trying to be clever, the Liberals thought that since Labour would vote in favour, they would decide to vote against. If their plans had worked, they could then have gone to the May elections speaking about a Labour-Tory coalition and how radical they, the Liberals, were. But Labour abstained, completely out-manoeuvring the Liberals. The 30 Liberal votes defeated the 24 combined votes of the Tories and Labour’s right wing.
The whole motion was therefore defeated leaving Labour without a budget but still holding effective control of the council through the chairs of committees, and there would be no recalled council meeting on 11 April. John Hamilton added to the discomfort of the Liberals when he announced, to wild applause from the public gallery, that by voting against the Liberals had made themselves liable to surcharge. It would now be the electorate in the may elections who would be the judge of the budget suggested by Labour. To jubilant chants of ‘Here we go!’ and cries of ‘How about a whip round for the Liberals?’ the Labour councillors and members of the public triumphantly left the meeting. Thus came to an end eight and a half hours of debate.
The government was absolutely stunned by this development. The calculations of a coalition of the Liberals, Tories and Labour traitors had come unstuck. Environment Minister Patrick Jenkin now desperately attempted to patch up a deal that would result in the downfall of the Labour council and the isolation of the ‘Militants’. According to Michael Parkinson in Liverpool on the Brink (pp55-6), he secretly approached Paul Orr, the leader of the ‘rebels’, with an odder of ‘more money than the city has ever seen from the Manpower Services Commission, the Sports Council and the Urban Programme, if you get the show on the road with a legal budget’. The right wing are the people who have consistently accused the Marxists of ‘underhand tactics’ and ‘conspiratorial methods’. Yet here was the right wing secretly conspiring with the hated Tory government to defeat Labour’s plans.
Unfortunately for Jenkin, although the right wing voted against an ‘illegal budget’, they had not yet been brought to the position where they could openly form a block with the Liberals and Tories. ‘If you sup with the devil, make sure you use a long spoon’ – it was one thing to discuss behind the scenes, but quite another to publicly embrace the Tories and Liberals in a coalition to attack the working class. Such a step would have completely shattered the myth they had fostered that it was they, the seven, and not the Militant who were ‘the real Labour Party’.
Meanwhile, the movement in Liverpool buoyed up by the 29 March events, began to prepare for the local elections. The crucial role of Militant and its supporters was reflected in the rally organised by Militant in St George’s Hall with a record attendance of 500 people. The clear programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics of the Marxists had led to a spectacular growth in the support for Militant, particularly amongst the youth and the council workforce.
At the same time, the Local Government Subcommittee of the Labour Party National Executive backed the stand of Liverpool City Council. Some right wingers were absent but the only vote against was from Charlie Turnock of the NUR, an anticipation of the hatchet job he was to do later in dismantling the District Labour Party in Liverpool.
Who Will Run the City?
Following the dramatic 29 March meeting and the thwarting of all the attempts to unseat the Labour council, the press unleashed another round of attacks against Labour councillors. The spectre of commissioners and even troops being sent into the city was raised once more. The Sunday Times (1 April) declared that the Tories had prepared an emergency bill to send in commissioners in view of the fact that ‘they expect Labour gains in the city’s May elections may yet produce a majority for the Labour budget’.
Thus the great Tory democrats were considering suspending elections, sending in troops, and in a semi-Bonapartist dictatorial fashion were even threatening to run the city through commissioners. If in tiny Clay Cross the use of commissioners foundered on the opposition of the unions and the working class, then what prospects for success were there in using them in Britain’s fifth largest and most militant city?
The Times claimed that ‘municipal services’ could be run or rates levied by appointees of central government… The ranks of uniformed Merseyside constables guarding the Town Hall the other day would turn out again if need be.’ The Sunday Times was more sober: ‘The caretakers have to unlock the doors, the computer has to be set up. There are twenty-five things that have to happen before you can sit in your grand office and pretend to run the city.’
Jenkin and the ruling class did not see things going smoothly in the event of the use of commissioners. The movement in Liverpool was still on the upswing as the forthcoming local elections would demonstrate. Moreover, the more serious sections of the ruling class were still haunted by the relatively recent Toxteth riots. Napoleon once said of his unsuccessful occupation of Spain: ‘You can do anything with bayonets, but you cannot sit on them.’
The resistance of the council workforce could have triggered off a movement in the private sector and in the charged atmosphere that existed on Merseyside could have fused together into a citywide revolt. Such a movement, particularly against the background of the miners’ strike was entirely possible. In February, The Times had urged: ‘It is a moment for Mr Jenkin to show his famous phlegm.’ But Jenkin was reported at this stage to be lying awake at night, haunted by the consequences of a false move in Liverpool. His advisers were strongly urging him not to use commissioners at that stage.
With local elections approaching, the Liberals were eager to avoid giving any impression that they favoured draconian cuts in jobs and services, but at a special council meeting on 25 April the deficit budget was once again voted down because the six Labour traitors voted with the opposition. In the decade up to 1983 the Tories and Liberals had found no difficulty in collaborating with one another, but now they were incapable of agreeing on a common budget. Like an estranged couple, with Jenkin and his advisers desperately playing the role of marriage guidance counsellor in the background, these parties could not be brought together to ‘save the city’. It was the mass pressure and the fear of what would happen to them in the election that stayed the hands of the Liberals.
In the run up to the local elections, the two capitalist parties once more resorted to their scare tactics. They played the ‘commissioners’ card for all it was worth. But press reports had indicated that those who had been approached to take on the job of commissioner in Liverpool were not at all keen. Press speculation indicated that the Governor of the Falklands had been approached; he preferred taking on ‘The Argies’ any day rather than Liverpool! In the 25 April council debate Derek Hatton stated:
It was reported to us by the national leaders of our Party, that even Patrick Jenkin himself put his hands in the air when approached by John Cunningham and said, ‘Who on earth could I put into Liverpool as a commissioner anyway? Even MacGregor [head of the Coal Board which had just provoked the national miners’ strike] wouldn’t take that!’
The May 1984 Local Elections
Canvassers during the May 1984 election campaign discovered that the mood had consolidated behind Labour. Even opponents of Labour were drawn behind the stand of the city council. A voter commented to a Liberal canvasser: ‘I can’t stand the Militant but at least someone is standing up to the bitch in London.’ An opinion poll had also revealed that a majority of Liberals, 53 per cent, and a substantial minority of Tories, 28 per cent, believed Labour’s claim that the government had not given a fair deal to Liverpool.
Another blow was suffered by the Liberals when Beryl Molyneux, the former Liberal candidate, revealed why she left to join Walton Labour Party. Although the Echo did not comment, her statement received wide circulation through publications of the labour movement:
I nearly made the biggest mistake of my life. I was selected candidate for Melrose Ward in Walton. It was a rushed decision to stand, but as some time went by and I attended Liberal meetings and met so-called ‘top’ Liberal people, I began to ask myself had I made the right choice.
I asked questions and the answers were not the ones that should have been given. How and why were government cuts allowed to happen? Why was no fight put up to prevent these cuts? I’ll tell you why, I honestly didn’t believe that the Liberals care enough about the city or its people. I attended the Labour Party ‘Liverpool in Crisis’ public meeting and got answers that I could relate to. Why should the people of Liverpool have second best? Why should we stand still and let our city die?
Much has been said about Labour’s illegal budget. But what is illegal about saving jobs, defending services which have deteriorated over the last ten years of the Liberal-Tory alliance. I believe only the Labour Party can help the city. Liverpool needs now, more than ever, strong leadership.
The result of the elections in May 1984 was a stunning victory for Labour. The Post (4 May) declared:
Voters in Liverpool took a huge step to the left in yesterday’s local elections giving Labour a clear 17 seat majority on the city council. It is seen as a massive vote of confidence in Labour’s confrontation over spending on local services… Opposition members were astonished at the size of the support. They had hoped that a year which saw the abolition of the Lord Mayor, a growth of the Militant Tendency on the city council, unpopular education reorganisation proposals and the introduction of a budget which could by £190 million outside the government target, could have helped their case. The size of the triumph was a major boost to Labour Party confidence and an enormous ‘thumbs up’ from the electorate over the fight with Thatcher and the government.
The turn-out of 50 per cent was astonishingly high for local elections – 10 per cent higher than in 1983, indicating the increased political consciousness that had developed in the city. Yet predictably the national press attempted to underplay the success: ‘Even Labour’s Militant triumph in Liverpool is not quite as impressive as it seems.’ (Sunday Times 6 May). This was not the first or the last time that the electoral success of Labour, and the influence of Militant in this success was to be consciously diminished. But the facts, stubborn facts, spoke against the crisis of Liverpool. In 1982 Labour got 54,000 votes in the city, in 1983 77,000 votes, and in 1984 this soared to over 90,000. In 33 of the 34 contested seats Labour’s vote increased. Labour held all 14 seats it was defending and seven seats were won from the Tories.
The Liberals claimed ‘the best ever Liberal vote’. But their ‘house journal’, the Echo, pointed out that they must have been severely embarrassed because they gained four seats from the Tories but lost six to Labour. The SDP, fighting seven seats as the SDP-Liberal Alliance, was completely wiped out.
For the Tories the results were an absolute disaster. For most of the previous 20 years they had shared control of the council with the Liberals. Now their vote had collapsed to 19 per cent.
An even more ignominious fate had befallen the Communist Party which, to the irritation of Labour activists, had stood against well-known left wingers. These worthies had consistently accused the Militant of being ‘sectarian’! Their share of the vote dwindled from 0.28 per cent in 1983 to 0.13 per cent. In one ward they gained just 30 votes. Militant supporters on the other hand, despite the press poison, did spectacularly well. Tony Mulhearn, President of the District Labour Party, received the highest vote for Labour for many years in St Mary’s Ward. Felicity Dowling, Secretary of the District Labour Party, increased the Labour vote in Speke by over 1000. Seven additional Militant supporters were elected to the council.
Looking for any crumb of comfort the press incredibly attempted to use the results in Liverpool to predict Labour defeats in any future general election: ‘Our analysis showed that a Liberal would now defeat Militant Labour MP Terry Fields in Broadgreen, where Liberals won three out of five wards.’ (Sunday Times, 6 May). But in 1984 Labour had got 38 percent of the vote in Broadgreen – exactly the same as in 1983. Undoubtedly the class polarisation had resulted in a high turnout in Broadgreen; 50 per cent voted, which exceeded the turnout in some constituencies in other parts of the country in the general election.
No matter how much Fleet Street scribes attempted to cover over the lessons of the Liverpool election results, the major parties in Liverpool were under no illusions. Appearing on television on the night of the election a dejected Trevor Jones, leader of the Liverpool Liberals, in a rare moment of honesty stated: ‘the Labour Party in Liverpool has raised the political consciousness of the people… that’s why we had such a high turn-out.’ Michael Parkinson correctly states:
As many as 51 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote – an extraordinarily high figure for a local election. And the confrontation appeared to touch everyone in the city and involved them equally. Women voted as often as men. The social classes behaved similarly, with working-class people only voting a little less frequently than middle- and upper-class groups. The highest turnout came from housewives and old age pensioners. But the unemployed, for example, voted almost as heavily as the employed. Nor did housing tenure affect turnout. Identical proportions of home owners, council tenants and private renters voted. Whatever the views about the causes of the problem, people in Liverpool were obviously affected and mobilised by it. (Liverpool on the Brink.)
The higher than average turnout among council workers, 72 per cent supporting Labour, was an indication of the support the council was building. The contrast between the result in Liverpool, as well as other areas in the country controlled by the left, and the performance of the right, was almost as striking as the year before. In nearby Blackburn for instance, ‘power base’ of Jack Straw (witch-hunter and arch opponent of Liverpool council), the turn-out was under 40 per cent. Labour won one seat but lost another! In Hyndburn, Labour lost control of the council to the Tories. The area shared the same local paper as Blackburn and therefore carried details of the internecine expulsion of Militant supporters. Moreover, the majority for Labour on the Blackburn council was put in jeopardy by the defection of the witch-hunting councillor Michael Gregory, whose ‘evidence’ had furnished the basis for the expulsion of Militant supporters.
Nor was the success of Militant supporters restricted to Liverpool. In Glasgow, for example, five supporters of Militant were elected, including two seats previously held by the Tories. The campaign had been fought around a policy of no rent or rate rises and no cuts.
In neighbouring Manchester, Labour also made gains fighting on a platform of no rent or rate rises, with the left faring much better than the right in the elections. Graham Stringer, leader of Manchester City Council later stated: ‘In fact, Liverpool council leaders John Hamilton and Derek Hatton had helped Manchester elect a Labour council because the media, Tories and Liberals, had kept saying Manchester would become another Liverpool if you voted Labour.’
For months the fainthearts and sceptics led by the national leadership of the labour movement had intoned that the ‘adventurist’ stand of the Liverpool City Council would not be supported by the mass of the population. Militant supporters, on the contrary, had argued consistently that such were the conditions in Liverpool that Labour’s stand would evoke a great response from the working class. This position was completely confirmed by the local elections of May 1984.
Reactions to the Results
In the wake of the election victory a mood of grim determination to face the Tory government affected not just the council leaders but perhaps the majority of the population of Liverpool.
In a citywide survey, voters were asked what action they thought could be taken to oppose a Tory government takeover: 62 per cent of Labour voters supported demonstrations; 68 per cent occupation by redundant workers; 59 per cent a strike by council workers; 48 per cent a rent and rates strike; 56 per cent supported a refusal by council workers to cooperate with commissioners; and an incredible 55 per cent in favour of a city wide general strike. Moreover 28 per cent of Liberal voters favoured occupation of council premises by redundant council workers. Even 8 per cent of Tories favoured similar measures. Liverpool was like a tinderbox: one false move from the government and it would explode.
The government was playing for time, and despite Labour’s success in the elections, was hoping that the war of nerves would result in a split in the Labour group. But only one councillor resigned and left Liverpool looking for a safer haven. The government, through the medium of the Labour leadership, were compelled to go once more into negotiations.
In late May, a decision was taken to set up a joint investigation into the finances of the Liverpool City Council by Patrick Jenkin’s officials and Liverpool local government officials. The capitalist media mischievously suggested that this was a sign that the council was about to capitulate to the government. But Tony Mulhearn stated: ‘The bottom line as far as the Liverpool Labour Group are concerned remains the same – that there must be no job losses, no cuts or massive rent or rate increases. There will be no secret deals with the Tory government.’ He gave a promise that the organisations of the Liverpool labour movement would decide on any settlement.
Meanwhile, it was not just the government or the national Labour leadership who were uncomfortable at the success of the tactics of the city council. Just after the splendid March demonstration and strike the Morning Star, the national organ of the Communist Party, stated:
The criticism of the [Liverpool] Labour group has been their unwillingness to find a point of unity… the direction of a council leadership faced with an apparent no-win scenario has also provided bitter resentment for many people in the city who have hoped for a fundamental breach with past practices of ‘rule from the top’ and who have been looking for a period of involvement and consultation.
This statement would have graced any of the bourgeois journals which have habitually attacked Liverpool City Council. The author was John Blevin, who once worked alongside Ian Lowes as Deputy Convenor in the Cleansing Department but left to take up a full-time position with the Communist Party. The article continued: ‘Despite warnings of a Clay Cross development, despite the national Labour Party advice, despite the lack of a broad-based mass appeal, the council has chosen to create anti-Tory struggle virtually in isolation.’ Thus the communist party was at one with the extreme right wing of the Labour Party.
Just precisely what the ‘broad approach’ meant was revealed in the manoeuvres of Communist Party officials when the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (the Confed) convened a meeting of trade unions, community representatives, churches and other ‘interested groups’. Representation from the Labour group on the city council was specifically excluded at the first meeting of this group because it took place on 25 April, the day of the second budget meeting.
A further meeting was called by the Confed for 4 May, the day after Labour’s victory. At this meeting Tony Mulhearn moved a resolution calling for support for the city council, but the chairman, Barry Williams, a member of the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party, refused to accept it on the basis that ‘a broad consensus’ was sought from the meeting. Just precisely what this meant had been indicated in the Communist Party’s literature which had been circulating in the city, calling for the inclusion of ‘sections of the Tory Party’ in a ‘broad alliance’. Imagine Chris Hallows and those Tories-in-disguise like Trevor Jones, in a common delegation with Patrick Jenkin! Perhaps the Communist Party was thinking more of people like Paul Orr and the ‘scabby seven’ who had stabbed Labour in the back.
The same cynical opportunism was to be displayed by the Communist Party on a number of subsequent issues, from the appointment of Sam Bond as Principal Race Relations Adviser, to the strike in September 1985 and the whole question of the witch-hunt. Thus Communist Party member Jim Ferguson suggested in the council Joint Shop Stewards Committee that rate rises should be used to avoid redundancies. He subsequently denied, as did his allies, that he had suggested a 70 per cent rate rise. Yet even Neil Kinnock and Jack Straw had admitted that it would require a 60-70 per cent rate rise in order to avoid redundancies.
Just what this advice meant was revealed in the performance of other, predominantly right-wing councils in Britain at that stage. In Birmingham a Labour council was facing £17 million of ‘savings’, that is cuts in services, together with a massive 30-50 per cent rate rise in order to keep within the government’s budget guidelines.
Neil Kinnock was soon to have first hand experience of the indignation of workers when faced with Labour councils carrying through Tory cuts. At the Labour women’s conference in Swansea he was to witness what the ‘dented shield’ means for working people. Two hundred angry parents were protesting against West Glamorgan Labour Council’s decision to cut school buses, thus leaving their children with long walks to school on roads with no pavements.
Yet there were to be no ringing denunciations of this Labour council at the Labour Party Conference in 1985 where he made his infamous attack on the Liverpool City Council. The Labour leadership nationally, while constantly undermining Liverpool and shamefully vilifying the council later on, passed over in silence the cuts of right-wing Labour councils, which were crimes against their own supporters.
The Labour leadership were at pains to present the image of ‘honest brokers’ between Liverpool and the government. But as subsequent events in 1985 and 1986 were to demonstrate, they had a clearly worked out purpose in undermining Liverpool City Council. At this stage, however, given the explosive scale, all of those who opposed Liverpool’s stance had to tread very carefully.
Alongside the threat of commissioners in the period leading up to 29 March, the District Auditor, Leslie Stanford, warned of the consequences of ‘wilful misconduct’. The council’s rejoinder was to remove him from their offices. They did not see why their future jailer should be ensconced in municipal property.
Their Morals or Ours?
The Labour councillors were blackened through the media as ‘immoral’ and ‘lawbreakers’ but at a Militant public meeting in the city at this stage this charge was fully answered by Peter Taaffe:
Marxism does not have a ‘moral’ code. But it does not approach morality in the fashion of Neil Kinnock who has consistently indicted Thatcher for not representing ‘the moral majority’. By her own lights Thatcher was acting in accordance with a moral code. Her morality was that of the ruling class itself; all measures, no matter what the suffering, are justified so long as it defends the capitalist system.
Conversely, Marxism justifies all those measures which strengthen the working class, increase its cohesiveness and confidence and above all raise its level of understanding, both of the nature of capitalism and the need for the socialist reorganisation of society. In no way does Marxism subscribe to the Jesuitical moral precept ‘the end justifies the means.’ Not all means can be justifies, no matter how well meant, in the struggle for socialism. The Stalinists have not hesitated to conspire behind the backs of the working class, to engage in ballot rigging, in order to maintain positions in the labour movement. Measures which lower the estimation of the working class of its own historic role – into which category fall those attempts at manoeuvre, intrigue and the imposition of decisions on the working class – directly hinder the struggle for socialism.
It was this ‘moral code’, a class approach to morality and to law, which motivated the Marxists in Liverpool and elsewhere. Marxism is prepared to break the hypocritical class morality and laws of capitalism. There is no shortage of legal weapons in the hands of the ruling class (and its local acolytes, if it comes to that). Under the 1967 General Rate Act ‘any aggrieved person’ (including obviously, any ratepayer or creditor to the council) could have challenged Labour in the High Court, or the government could undoubtedly have initiated legal action, through the Attorney General, for example, to make the city set a legal rate.
The fact that they chose not to in Liverpool at this stage and the impotence of the ruling class to decisively affect events. The Liberals were warning of chaos and hysterically denouncing Labour every day. The Tories likewise. Yet, neither Trevor Jones nor Chris Hallows despite hints in the press, resorted to the High Court in order to insist on a ‘legal budget’. This reflected two things: the fear of the odium that would be attached to any political party in Liverpool that took the step of removing a democratically elected body, and the enormous increase in support for Labour as reflected in the 1984 elections.
Like seals passing a ball from one to another, the Liberals and Tories appealed to Jenkin, Jenkin appealed to them, Jones and Hallows looked to the district Auditor, and all appealed to God to do something to ‘rescue our unhappy city’. In this situation the government was compelled once more to go into negotiations in the hope of buying some time. In the words of Michael Parkinson: ‘It could no longer be argued that the council had hijacked the city. It had popular support.’ Under enormous pressure, Jenkin agreed to visit the city in June.
Support for Miners
The Liverpool struggle was coalescing and being identified in the minds of the mass of the working class with the heroic struggle of the miners which was then at its height. Under a huge banner ‘Victory to the Miners, Support Liverpool Council’, 2000 delegates gathered at a ‘Fightback Conference’ on 23 June. Derek Hatton declared: ‘Either the government gives us the money we need, or we’ll go back in the council chamber on 11 July with the same budget we put forward on 29 March.’
Like other councils, Liverpool City Council was heavily involved in support for the miners. All firms who scabbed during the miners’ strike were declared blacked by the Personnel Committee, which was chaired by Derek Hatton. The city council provided facilities for collecting cash to buy food which was delivered to the mining areas by the lorry-load. The Labour Party Young Socialists organised an extremely effective rock concert in Walton Park where thousands of youth gathered to hail the struggle of the miners and of Liverpool.
A Tory cabinet committee, involving Thatcher, Jenkin, Heseltine, Tebbitt and an array of top official, was monitoring the situation weekly. It was with some trepidation that Jenkin had agreed to visit Liverpool. After his much publicised meeting with Derek Hatton in February he had confessed on the radio that it was ‘the most frightening’ confrontation he had ever experienced. But it was as nothing to the real horrors, rather than the imaginary ones concocted by the press in February, which faced him when he actually visited Liverpool.
Labour took him on a short but tour which showed the appalling conditions which thousands of working-class families lived in, particularly in the Vauxhall and Everton districts. By the end of his tour he was visibly shaken. According to Tony Mulhearn ‘he was like a criminal returning to the scene of his crimes’. The local tenants did not pull any punches and three demonstrations stopped the bus he was travelling in and demanded action. With local Labour Party Young Socialist branches and Militant supporters out in force, Jenkin was compelled to walk around one estate with over 100 local tenants behind him, demanding that they be transferred out of the terrible housing conditions. Two small children pointed out dead rats which was a normal, everyday occurrence in the area. Workers carried placards declaring: ‘We want out – the worst slum in Europe’, ‘We have more leaks than the Tory Cabinet’ and ‘If the Iron Lady lived here, she would rust’.
At the end of the tour, in a much publicised statement, Jenkin declared, ‘I’ve seen some awful housing conditions today – I’ve seen with my own eyes some deplorable conditions which have got to be tackled as a matter of urgency.’ Some commentators were subsequently to claim that Jenkin’s statement was a ‘tactical error’. For a capitalist spokesman to be touched by the conditions which his system creates, and for once to admit being shocked by them, is considered to be a ‘tactical error’!
When he returned to the Town Hall, Patrick Jenkin was subjected to a barrage of questions and demands, not just from the Labour councillors but from top council officials. One pointed out that the government had been prepared to pour money into Liverpool for a Garden Festival and reclamation on the dockland, but would not give money for a democratically elected council to deal with the terrible social conditions of people in the area.
The only reason why Patrick Jenkin agreed to visit Liverpool was because of the pressure exerted by the population of Liverpool. Notwithstanding this, the District Auditor sent out a letter in early June, threatening every Labour councillor with a £2000 fine unless a budget was set by 20 June however the District Auditor did not proceed to enforce this threat because his masters in London were about to climb down. His successor would be given the green light to proceed once the government were on firmer ground.