Moving Into Illegality
Since Liverpool was Militant’s ‘jewel in the crown’, it was also important for them to be seen to be running the city efficiently and scoring propaganda victories over Thatcher. In this way, they could present Liverpool as ‘the model working-class state, a kind of socialism in one city’. (Michael Parkinson Liverpool on the Brink.)
In fact, Militant supporters approached the Liverpool council struggle in an entirely opposite fashion to that described by Parkinson. The slightest acquaintance with the ideas of Trotskyism would have shown him the philosophy of ‘socialism in one city’, or one country for that matter, was completely foreign to the outlook of Militant supporters. But the charge of Liverpool’s ‘isolationism’ was a convenient smokescreen behind which every Labour faint-heart, afraid of taking on the government, could cringe.
There were frequent charges that Liverpool wanted to ‘go it alone’ or that Militant supporters were only willing to build support for Liverpool. Yet nothing was further from the truth. The council had already accepted unfavourable tactics, the ‘no-rate’ stance, in the interests of unity with the other councils.
Likewise, the efforts of Militant supporters were directed towards gaining support for Liverpool in a common struggle with other councils throughout the country. Quite heroic efforts were made by councillors and local government workers to establish links through a joint strategy with their counterparts in other authorities. Indeed, between April and June 1985 the unswerving determination of council workers to compel their councils to put up a resistance to the onslaught of the government demanded such cooperation.
Liverpool did become ‘isolated’ in the course of the decisive year of 1985. But this had nothing to do with the tactics of the Liverpool council leadership. It had much more to do with the fact that many Labour councillors in other authorities who had pledged to resist the Tory government, ran for cover at the first whiff of grapeshot. The main attribute displayed by these ‘principled lefts’ was the suppleness of their spines. When the GLC and ILEA threw in the towel, most of the other rate-capped councils initially indicated their willingness to maintain the ‘no-rate’ policy. When most of them retreated in the following weeks and months, they were often met with the open resistance of their workforce, which in some cases were prepared to take industrial action.
The Liverpool labour movement in the previous period had become accustomed to being the main hate object of the media, particularly since the end of the miners’ strike. However, the previous slanders, the diatribes and personal vituperation were as nothing compared to the mud which would be thrown in the period of April to December 1985.
In the wake of the Heysel Stadium tragedy in April when Italian football fans were killed in clashes with Liverpool supporters at a European Cup Final, the whole of the population of Liverpool were collectively condemned as ‘barbarians’ and ‘lumpens’. The press seized on horrifying examples of drug addiction, not the preserve of Liverpool alone, to dub the area as ‘Smack City’. Its purpose was to reinforce the isolation resulting from the desertion of other councils, in preparation for the downfall of the council. The government confidently expected that this isolation would evoke a ‘more responsible’ attitude by the labour movement. A chastened Labour council, they predicted, would carry out the same kind of ‘compromises’ – outright retreats – as other Labour councils had done.
The government, not to say the national Labour leadership, were relishing the prospect of rubbing Liverpool Labour’s nose in the dirt. Yet in the months of April, May and June, the grim determination of the Liverpool working class was to shine through. This in turn was to confound the government’s expectations and catch them completely off balance when Labour decided in June to make an illegal budget.
April had opened with a meeting of the National Local Authority Co-ordinating Committee (NLACC) at which 250 delegates were present, representing half a million workers in 60 councils. Ian Lowes declared; ‘We have said clearly, we expect Labour councils to stand firm and we will support them. But if any Labour council opts out and attempts to make cuts we will oppose them and take whatever action is necessary, including industrial action.’ The formation of NLACC was undoubtedly a factor which strengthened the resolve of local government workers in Liverpool to prevent any action which would lead to cuts in local government.
The spirit of resistance reached all layers of the labour movement. In no other area of Britain were the Labour Party, the council, the council workforce and the MPs united in one campaign. Liverpool’s Labour MPs in the House of Commons, reflecting the determination of the Liverpool working class, showed unflinching support for the stand of the council. At the beginning of April, Eric Heffer, in a lecture who had been hanged in 1803, said that the law had always been used to repress the labour movement. According to the Echo:
He quoted with approval the words of miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, last October, when he said he was prepared to go to jail rather than betray his class or his union. That should be the view of all trade unionists.
He claimed that first the train drivers, then the printworkers in the NGA at Warrington, and staff at the government GCHQ had been left stranded in disputes ‘which should have led to a threatened general strike’.
Mersey Militancy – A Strange Disease
Many capitalist commentators were to ponder on the explanation for ‘Mersey Militancy’ – a strange disease which seemed to infect even ‘responsible’ Labour MPs. But there was nothing mystical in the mood and outlook of the population of the area. It was grounded in the long and bitter experience of Liverpool as a deprived and underfunded city.
Merseyside experienced in early 1985 a further plethora of job losses. Guinness axed 300 workers, Cammell Lairds a further 420. ‘Merseyside has crashed through the 100,000 barrier of jobs lost since the government came to power’ reported the Echo on 14 February 1985. Derek Hatton declared: ‘This is a milestone of misery and deprivation.
Since we came to power on the city council, we have saved 1000 jobs and created another 1000. Those 100,000 jobs are 100,000 reasons why people should never again vote Tory or Liberal.’ A total of 449 factories closed on Merseyside between 1979 and 1985. Even the Merseyside Young Tories, a very rare breed, were reported as ‘spearheading a national call for more government action over unemployment’. But government steadfastly refused a special debate on the matter in the House of Commons which Merseyside MPs demanded.
The desperation of the unemployed was highlighted by an unemployed 29-year-old Kirkby man parading regularly in the city centre with a placard which read ‘please give me a job’. Others, and not the most militant, took more decisive action. Thus a group of clerks who perceived that they would be made redundant with the ending of the Manx Ferry decided to occupy one of their vessels. This was typical of the general militancy that permeated the area and which was undoubtedly influenced and inspired by the stand of the city council.
Later in 1985 a devastating report entitled, Liverpool’s Economy by Chief Planning Officer Michael Hayes, added to the gloomy prospects for the city on the basis of capitalism. The report showed that a possible 32,000 further job losses could be experienced in the city by 1991. This would result in an unemployment rate approaching 30 per cent. Between 1978 and 1985 40,000 manufacturing jobs had been lost, 46 per cent of the 1978 number. The decline in the area’s fortunes was underlined by the growth in the rate of the long-term unemployed. Seven years previously, the percentage of unemployed out of work for more than a year was 34 per cent. In 1985 a further 3500 had been thrown out of work through large-scale redundancies.
The city’s manufacturing industry was dominated by the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’. These seven companies – Fords, Plesseys, Dunlop, United Biscuits, General Electric Company, Eric Bemrose (Printers) and Glaxo – employed between them almost 23,000 people. Plesseys announced 720 ‘shedding of staff’ at its Huyton plant. Dunlop announced 130 redundancies. GEC announced further cutbacks. A question mark had hung over Eric Bemrose, now owned by press mogul, Rupert Murdoch. United Biscuits had already carried through redundancies.
Peter Phelps, Echo correspondent, pointed out: ‘To achieve even 5 per cent unemployment by the end of the decade would require the creation of 70,000 new jobs – and the protection of every existing job.’ Little wonder that Tony Mulhearn, President of the District Labour Party, could declare at a city council meeting: ‘The report shows the failure of private enterprise. We have in Britain the most corrupt, effete, degenerate capitalist class in the history of the world. If the trends continue there will be no manufacturing jobs left in Liverpool by 1990.
The only alternative is a socialist alternative.’ There was no possibility of a lifeline for the city or the area on the basis of capitalism. Even the poodle-like Echo was constrained to denounce Thatcher. It plaintively declared on 9 July: ‘By 1990 we may have no industrial base at all in an area which was once the main port of the empire and a great commercial and manufacturing centre.’
Tory Employment Minister, Tom King, on a visit to the city, blithely declared: ‘I am optimistic that we shall se a real improvement in employment in the country. But I am concerned as to whether Liverpool will get its proportional share.’ Predictably; ‘Mr King admitted things were grim, but slammed Liverpool’s Labour council for its continuing rates battle, (Echo, 12 July 1985).
Patrick Jenkin and the rest of the government set their face implacably against the claims of Liverpool, confident in the belief that once their unstable allies had deserted them, the council would be compelled to retreat. Meanwhile the government did not miss any opportunity to impose further suffering on the poorest sections of Liverpool. In April, thousands of low income council tenants were faced with a cut of up to £5.75 per week in the cash aid they received towards rent.
This arose because the government no longer regarded Liverpool as a ‘high rent area’ following the changes in the Tories’ Housing Benefit scheme. These subsidies would only be reinstated if the council increased rents! This only stiffened the resolve of the Liverpool working class to defeat the government. In all their schemes however they did not take into account the importance of the fact that behind the council were tens of thousands of workers determined that this time a stand would be made.
The letters column of the Echo was full of the most heart-rending letters outlining the misery and suffering of working people without a job in the area. One declared: ‘As a young unemployed… it is not a case of getting on your bike and finding work; you usually have to hop on a plane.’ Another working-class woman from Kirkby wrote: ‘My 17-year-old son “got on his bike”, but after having a metaphoric 98 punctures to his bike, that is two replies from 100 letters, his hopes were fading.’
Undaunted, the Echo pumped out its poison against the council as the source of the major ills of the area, backed up in April by the Liberal MP David Alton who suggested that Militant thrived on misery. But occasionally a letter would appear which indicated the rage and disdain which many felt for the local press:
How is it that David Alton gets more attention by the media than all the other Liverpool MPs put together. With his anti-Labour rantings, he has developed his own Tory type ‘fanatical policies’.
Another replied to Alton:
In reply to ‘Militants prey on jobless’, I think Mr David Alton has a cheek. It is because of people like him that we still have ‘young people on the dole living in depressing and ugly conditions’. Mr Alton seems to think socialists are glad we have social conditions the way they are today, but it is because of the broken down, rotten system of capitalism which he and his counterparts, the Tories, try to run, that we still have drug pushers in society. I am a young worker who is fed up with people like him avoiding the real issues. (Echo 10 April)
A poll by the Liverpool Star (11 April) revealed that 90 per cent of Liverpudlians thought that the government didn’t care about the people of Merseyside.
‘Left’ Councils Crumble
Meanwhile a ferocious struggle was taking place within many of the councils which had pledged themselves to the so-called ‘no-rate’ policy. One by one the right wing Labour councillors within those authorities voted with Tory and Liberal opposition to introduce a ‘legal rate’. But this was not without tremendous opposition from workers, tenants and other groups who would be affected by the cuts.
In Manchester, the right wing supported a Tory motion on 31 March and followed the GLC into ‘legality’. In the middle of the night of 3-4 April Lewisham introduced a ‘Tory rate’ – that is, set a rate while Labour councillors were out of the council chamber. The Lewisham Federation of Tenants immediately threatened a possible rent strike if there was a rent rise. Hackney unions were demanding that the council stand firm in the teeth of a High Court Order to fix a rate by 16 April.
In mid-May Hackney council workers occupied the council chamber after right winders defied the decision of the Hackney Labour Party Borough Conference and voted left wingers off all the committed in preparation to push through a cuts budget. Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph (7 April 1985) revealed that Tory MP Sir Hugh Rossi passed a document to Kenneth Baker for him to decide whether a police investigation and charges of ‘criminal conspiracy’ were possible over the plans to fight rate-capping organised by the shop stewards in the London Bridge organisation.
In most local authorities the ‘firm stand’ on the ‘no-rates’ policy was by now fraying at the edges. Apparently, some ‘left-wing’ Labour leaders were secretly inviting right-wing councillors to break the whip and vote for ‘a legal rate’. For example, Sheffield City Council set a legal rate on 12 May when some Labour councillors voted with the opposition. This despite the fact that the Sheffield District Labour Party had voted only one week earlier – by two to one – not to set a rate and to step up the local and national action against the Tories.
Ten Labour councillors in North Tyneside went as far as voting with the Tories to remove the Labour leader and Labour members from committee chairs!
Meanwhile, the Tory dignitaries, no matter which distant part of the globe they were visiting, were not allowed to forget the spectre of Liverpool. In mid April, Thatcher visited Indonesia. According to t he Post (12 April):
Dissedent students taunted Mrs Thatcher with a defiant cry when she visited Bandung University… ‘Liverpool, Liverpool’, they chanted in unison, adding the only sour note to an otherwise rapturous welcome for the British Prime Minister. No one quite knew whether the chant had a football connection, or if news of Liverpool City Council’s defiant stand against Mrs Thatcher’s government really had travelled half way around the world to dog her footsteps.
Why should ‘dissident’, politically inspired students, chant the name of one of Britain’s most successful football teams as a means of irritating a politician they oppose? The struggle of Liverpool City Council, which had been commented on widely in the foreign press, had found an echo even in this distant outpost of the former Dutch empire. Little wonder that Thatcher, according to Michael Parkinson, ‘personally and politically… detested the Militant Liverpool leaders’.
Liverpool remained firm in the teeth of government intransigence and the collapse of other ‘left’ councils. All the main council spokespersons in Liverpool made declarations expressing their refusal to carry through cuts. Dominic Brady, Chair of education, stated on 12 April:
Labour would continue its policy of retaining 200 teachers over the ‘establishment’ [government guidelines for job levels in education]. We give notice that this council intends to make no cuts in the education service, no redundancies amongst teachers and ancillary staff. Unfortunately it means we are in conflict with central government.
But this stand was not supported in any way by the leaders of the NUT who had previously refused to organise their members for strike action on 7 March. Moreover, they had gone to the court to demand the payment of wages for their members for that day, and had even subsequently organised their own one-day strike to reinforce their demands on this narrow, selfish issue.
Notwithstanding the pressure of the government and the growing isolation of Liverpool, the council still attempted to offer a hand to out of work youngsters. Even the Post (3 May 1985) reported:
Liverpool City council today offered 100 jobs [to unemployed youth]. Deputy Leader, Derek Hatton, threw out a challenge to the city’s industry chiefs to follow their lead. Clerical jobs are on offer through the government’s Youth Training Scheme (YTS). But instead of the jobs lasting just 12 months, all successful applicants will be offered permanent employment with the council.
Unlike YTS schemes elsewhere, the council ‘topped up’ the allowance to the ‘rate for the job’. Derek Hatton went on to state: ‘We have often said that Liverpool City Council, as the largest employer on Merseyside, needs to lead by example. We challenge private industry to follow us.’ GEC responded by announcing the axing of 100 more jobs at its East Lancs Road factory.
National School Students’ Strike
The identification of the council with the aspirations of the youth of the city was reciprocated in the support that was forthcoming from young people.
The combative mood of the youth was shown in the movement of the school students in April. At the beginning of the year, Tory Employment Minister, Tom King, had announced that the government was considering ‘conscripting’ all young people without a job onto the YTS schemes.
These schemes were widely perceived by young people and their parents as slave labour because they lacked elementary trade-union rights, were without proper health and safety cover and usually led not to ‘real jobs’ but, after the short period of the schemes, back onto the dole. The government threatened that youth would be forced to accept these schemes, with the penalty for refusing being the withdrawal of social security benefits. This produced widespread revulsion.
The Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) conducted an energetic and militant campaign in the earlier part of the year. In Glasgow, a highly successful one day strike of school students had taken place in March. This brought down on the heads of the organisers of the demonstration, the Glasgow LPYS, not just the condemnation of the media and the capitalist parties, but also Labour spokespersons. It was all very well for the students of South Africa to campaign and strike for their rights, but not the youth of Britain! But the Glasgow strike indicated the mood of the youth and reinforced the determination of the national leadership of the LPYS to support a proposal for national strike action against the proposals of the government, organised under the banner of the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign (YTURC). The national strike was planned for 25 April and was intended to demonstrate the opposition to t he Tories’ YTS schemes and against education cuts.
The ruling class and their echoes within the labour movement were terrified by the prospect of a school student’s strike which would overwhelmingly involve students from a working-class background. The mood amongst students, including school students, is a weather vane of developments in society. The movement amongst the students in France in 1968 was a harbinger and, to some extent, a trigger for the far more serious movement of the French working class in the magnificent 10 million strong general strike. The school and college students strikes in France and Spain in 1986-7 were directly influenced and inspired by the movements that had taken place in Britain.
The Post in early April 1985 had benignly supported: ‘gymslip protesters [who]… marched on Liverpool’s education offices. The girls staged their lunchtime protest last week in support of teachers they claim are being demoted or transferred as part of Liverpool’s schools reorganisation.’ However, the tone of the press changed abruptly when working-class students entered on the scene, demanding their rights.
A national School Students Union (SSU) had previously been formed by LPYS members, with branches in every city in Britain and with Labour MPs Terry Fields and Dave Nellist supporting the union. Yet the Echo front page declared on 13 April: ‘Kids all out call by Militants’. Predictably: ‘The new strike threat brought swift condemnation from the city’s Liberal leader, Sir Trevor Jones, who claimed it was an attempt to brainwash children.’ David Alton, in the House of Commons, demanded that Thatcher should ban the forthcoming strike. Thatcher duly ‘condemned the plan in the Commons yesterday’ (Echo, 17 April 1985).
A few days ahead of the rest of the city and the country, the school students of Kirkby marched out on strike. They were met by police and harassed by the media and 14 school students were arrested. The Liverpool City Education spokesperson Dominic Brady immediately came out in support of the school students union. This in turn prompted the headline in the Echo (23 April): ‘Power to striking pupils. City schools chief in move for “free pardon”.’ All that Dominic Brady had said was that students fighting against industrial conscription should not be punished by the education authorities. Trevor Jones declared: ‘Councillor Brady is not fit to hold office.’
In the House of Commons Terry Fields attacked Thatcher for condemning the action by school students. He told her: ‘You had to travel 7000 miles to Indonesia to get the acclaim of some school children. Thursday [the day for the strike] will show what the children of her own country think of her.’ The denunciations of the proposed action by Liberal and Tory spokespersons evoked equally ferocious comments from school students:
The strike on 25 April is the only means that the school students can vent their anger and mobilise themselves into opposition against the proposals of YTS conscription being imposed by the Tory government. As for David Alton condemning the proposed strike, what has he done to help the youth fight against YTS conscription? (Echo, 23 April.)
In simple language, they were drawing on the example of the Liverpool City Council. Only action would force the government to bend, they were completely impervious to words and speeches. The same letter to the Echo declared: ‘Today’s youth understand that YTS is just a means of cutting the dole figures and making a profit for the bosses. The school students have a crucial role in this struggle as it is they who are being condemned into an era of slave labour in the form of YTS.’
So intense was the feeling amongst school students that there were premature walk-outs before 25 April, not just on Merseyside but in Portsmouth, Southampton, Havant and Arbroath. Even the Liberal spokesperson had to make ‘sympathetic’ noises about the plight of youth, declaring in the Guardian (24 April) that in his area of Knowsley:
Only 4 per cent of 4,000 16-year-olds who left school last year had a permanent job. In some areas of the city youth unemployment was as high as 90 per cent. To sit back and do nothing would be totally wrong, but I object to a trade-union campaign by a collection of Young Socialists, run by Militant, who are not really concerned about unemployment but are seizing the chance to make rich pickings among young and fertile minds.
As with all strikes, the charge of ‘intimidation’ was made in relation to the school students’ strike. Thus the Tory education chief on Wirral council, Kate Wood, reported that one mother had told her that ‘he (her son) and his pals feared that they might be “done over” unless they joined in’. The Echo reported that an unnamed woman at Highfield comprehensive, Queens Drive, had declared: ‘older pupils from other schools, around 17 and 18 years old, have been approaching some children and warning them that if they did not join the marches they would be “got at”.’ Liberal councillor Neville Chinn claimed that he had received reports of bullying at school gates.
Tucked away at the bottom of the article, the Echo remarked: ‘A senior member of staff at Highfield School denied that there had been any bullying of children at the school gates.’ This did not prevent the editorial of the Echo being headline ‘The Way of the Yobbo’. It declared that any support for the strike would be ‘inviting children to play truant so they can demonstrate against the Tory government’.
The strike on 25 April was a huge triumph for the organisers. An estimated 250,000 school students marched out of their classrooms in demonstrations in most of the major cities of Britain. In Liverpool 25,000 struck. A boisterous demonstration of 10,000 marched to St George’s Plateau to be addressed by school students’ leaders and Terry Fields who received a tumultuous reception. Even the Echo was to declare:
School’s Out – for all but three. Only three children reported for lessons in one school, whereas at Croxteth Comprehensive, the headmaster said that no disciplinary action would be taken, and was reported as saying: ‘I am not in support of the action but I agree with the protest because I think they are right. I am very much against the YTS schemes’… Mr Blair said the pickets had been polite and well-behaved, but denied that teachers had incited the pupils.
Most of the schools were out in Kirkby. Some head teachers claimed that they closed the schools for fear ‘of intimidation’. But the strikers were extremely disciplined and well organised. The only complaint of the police was the speed at which the school students marched and the liveliness of their demonstration. They complained however, without foundation, that ‘It could have been very serious indeed.’
School students found ingenious ways of participating in the strike. Thus in one Liverpool school, Campion High, pupils climbed out of a first floor window after the head teacher had locked the gates. Chanting, ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ and ‘Here we go!’, the demonstrators were determined to force the government to retreat. Predictably, the youth and the organisers of the demonstration were compared by some correspondents in the Echo to ‘Hitler’s Youth’.
In his usual flippant fashion, Kinnock characterised the 250,000 who had marched out of schools as ‘dafties’.
attersley condemned what he called the ‘exploitation of youngsters which was squalid and cynical’. Eddie Loyden, Garston MP replied: ‘This sort of constructive, peaceful and organised protest id far better than the way young people displayed their anger in the Toxteth riots.’
Moreover, the parents of the school students showed tremendous support for the demonstration and strike. Liverpool Labour Party Women’s Council had canvassed support amongst the parents in the weeks leading up to the strike. Leaflets were distributed to explain what the strike was about and to counteract attempts by the press and others to claim that t he strike was irresponsibly exploiting the fears of young people.
One parent declared to a member of Broadgreen Labour Party: ‘I will be marching with my daughter after what happened to my son after a year of demoralisation on a YTS scheme. He was no longer the same character.’
The youth on this demonstration showed that, faced with a far more difficult and bleak future than precious generations, they were more determined to fight. Roger Bannister, Secretary of the Broadgreen Labour Party, gave some of the reasons for this in a letter to the Echo (3 May):
When I left a Manchester Comprehensive School in 1970 not one of my fellow pupils had to sign on the dole. Some of us went to college or university, others obtained jobs in the Post Office, insurance and engineering. Three years later I left university with only a temporary summer job as a brewery labourer to go to.
But within three months I had obtained employment suitable to my qualifications. Today the alternatives for school leavers are mass unemployment, exploitation on a YTS scheme or deferring the dole for three years by going to further education again, with little chance of a job at the end. Britain’s young people are not stupid, neither are they prepared to be used as a pool of cheap labour by the Tory government. They have made it clear by their actions that they will fight for a future.
The Labour leadership denounced the strike, but they were also aware that one of the keys to the future success of Labour would be the mobilisation of the youth vote. The strike had convinced them of the enormous discontent that existed amongst all layers of the youth. So at one and the same time they rushed out a ‘Youth Charter’ whilst evicting YTURC from Labour Party national headquarters. The printing trade union, SOGAT, immediately stepped in and offered alternative premises to YTURC.
The government also learned from the events of 25 April. The British bourgeois, unlike their French and Spanish counterparts recently, have learned to recognise early on when unfavourable winds begin to develop. The French government of Chirac was forced in late 1986 to withdraw its Education Bill only after mass strikes and demonstrations of students and moreover when the mass of the working class were threatening to join in the students’ action. Similar protracted struggles were necessary in Spain before the government was forced to give some concessions.
In Britain, on two occasions in recent years, the Tory government quickly withdrew measures that could have provoked a mass movement of the youth. In 1981 the Labour Party Young Socialists had organised a massive campaign on the issue of rights, training, conditions and wages on the forerunner of YTS, the Youth Opportunities Programme. As soon as they saw this movement developing, the government increased the YOP allowance. Similarly, with the mood developing amongst school students in 1985, demonstrated most particularly in the strike of 25 April, Tom King and other Tory spokespersons unceremoniously abandoned any idea of conscripting youth by withdrawing unemployment or social security pay for those students who refused to go onto the YTS schemes.
The school students’ strike was undoubtedly a landmark in the development of the labour movement in Britain and in Liverpool. Its success indicated the enormous impact which the struggles of the miners and Liverpool City Council had on the generation which will play a key role in the struggles of the working class over the next decade.
Taken aback by the firmness of the city council, the ruling class decided to step up its propaganda offensive. On the prompting of the Liberals the police were called in to investigate the council expenses of Derek Hatton. The flimsy basis for their investigation was the complaint of Liberal Rosemary Cooper that a council car had been ‘misused’. Immediately, headlines appeared in the press suggesting that the case was virtually proved: ‘Police check Hatton’s expenses’. When approached by the Sunday Times to confirm this, Derek Hatton’s rejoinder was apt: ‘the Sunday Times is getting like an upmarket Sun these days’.
The Pressure Mounts
Patrick Jenkin, buoyed up by the press, was exerting enormous pressure on the council to abandon its stand. A combination of factors, including creative accounting, low interest rates and falling inflation, plus extra housing subsidy from the government itself, seemed temporarily to ease Liverpool’s financial difficulties. But the council was still holding out for the concessions of housing finance which Jenkin had promised in the previous year.
Liverpool’s demands for more finance were reinforced by facts which emerged on t he cost of maintaining ‘Fortress Falklands’ for the government. The initial cost of building the Falklands Airport was £1 million for each of the 1800 islanders. The island was also being subsidised by an additional £1 million per day which meant that something like £5 billion of taxpayers’ cash had been spent in the previous three years. Thus the Tories were prepared to squander the wealth of the British people in maintaining this tiny imperial outpost with a population of less than 2000, while the demands of a city of half a million for the return of £30 million out of the ¢500 million the government had taken from it, were completely rejected.
Tony Mulhearn, on behalf of the District Labour Party, stated in mid-April: ‘The position of Liverpool City Council is still firm. There will be no cuts in services, no redundancies, no rate increases to compensate for Tory cuts.’ Labour suffered a blow in a council by-election in Dingle ward on 18 April but on the same day, in Speke ward, Labour romped home with a 2000 majority. The Liberal leadership, together with their mouthpiece the Echo used Dingle to write premature political obituaries for Labour.
Trevor Jones declared: ‘It is a step in the right direction. It gives us a much better launching pad for when we regain control in 1986.’ Labour honestly faced up to its defeat in Dingle.
Tony Mulhearn explained soberly the reasons for Labour’s defeat: ‘This is a clear indication that the cleansing services in the area are totally inadequate and the Liverpool labour and trade-union movement must get to grips with this problem. We see the result as a hiccup in our campaign and, once this problem is resolved, we can go on with the job of building mass support.’ In Speke, on the other hand, the population were beginning to see the fruits of Labour rule in the new houses which were being built.
Nevertheless, the by-election setback in Dingle undoubtedly gave a fillip to Jenkin and the government, as well as their local cohorts. In a series of carefully timed pronouncements Jenkin attempted to break the councillors’ resistance. On a visit to the city he ‘predicted that the nationwide rate revolt by Labour authorities would fizzle out and Liverpool could be left isolated. They will find themselves on their own, with no support from Labour’s front bench, and the law snapping at their heels.’ (Echo, 23 April 1985).
This indicated that private assurances and backing had probably been given by Labour’s front bench to Tory spokespersons in their offensive against the remaining defiant rate-capped councils. Anthony Bevins, then correspondent for The Times and personal friend of the then Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk who in return was close to Kinnock, confidently anticipated ‘Labour set for clash with Left’. Kinnock and Labour’s Environment Spokesperson John (Jack) Cunningham, seeing the crumbling of the GLC, ilea and other authorities, were prepared to be more open in their opposition to those councillors who remained defiant.
The government appointed a new ‘tough guy’, Mr Thomas McMahon, as the District Auditor for Merseyside. His predecessor, Stanford, was no less ‘tough’ but he had been constrained by the mass support for the council in the city and the fear of national repercussions if action was to be taken against the councillors. With the capitulation of other councils, the government and its local representatives, such as the District Auditor, felt the wind in their sails. John Banham, the £60,000 a year boss of the 13 District Auditors around the country, weighed in with a broadside against Liverpool at the beginning of May. He once more threatened the council leaders with dire ‘legal’ consequences if they maintained their defiance of the government. In an interview with the Echo (2 May 1985) he also warned:
…that Liverpool’s local watchdog would step in before the middle of next month – the deadline for giving ratepayers their legal right to pay their bills in ten instalments… If the Labour councillors still refuse to set a rate they would face personal fines and could be banned from office for five years.
Despite these threats the council pushed ahead with its promised reforms for the council workforce, introducing a 35-hour week and £100 minimum wage at the May council meeting.
With tensions mounting, the slanders against the councillors became cruder. Norman Tebbit, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, exercising his personal brand of political subtlety, attempted to link left-wing councillors like those in Liverpool with ‘Hitler’s National Socialists’. Eric Heffer denounced Tebbit and ‘demanded an apology for democratic socialists who fought arms in hand, against the Nazis, and laid down their lives’.
Despite the propaganda barrage, and the threats of Patrick Jenkiin and theDistrict Auditor, the government did not choke off Liverpool’s financial lifeline. While it received little rate income in April, May or June, the council did receive government grants, despite the fact that the government and the District Auditor were later to claim that Liverpool was acting ‘illegally’.
Every dirty slander in the locker of capitalism was marshalled against Liverpool at this time. Thus the satirical magazine Private Eye published the most outrageous lies about Derek Hatton. It suggested that he had moved from his house to a mansion and switched his children to ‘private schools’. Derek Hatton threatened to sue Private Eye, declaring at the same time: ‘I have lived in the same house for the past ten years. It has never been on the market… my children go to local primary schools – they will go to the local comprehensive.’ Features began to appear in the press about the drug problems on some of the working-class estates in Liverpool. A picture of Liverpool working people as ‘work-shy, drug-addicted and incorrigible scroungers’ was presented by the national media.
The Heysel Stadium Tragedy
The incident which most clearly highlighted the conscious policy of denigrating Liverpool because of its political stance was the Heysel Stadium tragedy on 28 April.
At the European Cup Final in Brussels a clash between Liverpool and Juventus fans resulted in the collapse of a wall and the death of 38 Juventus fans. The horrific scenes witnessed on television appalled all workers, not least those in Liverpool. But it later became quite clear that a combination of inadequate facilities at the Heysel Stadium, lack of proper policing and chaos in the allocation of tickets and seats for the different fans had all contributed to this tragedy.
Unconcerned with the terrible suffering of families in Italy who had lost sons and fathers, Thatcher and the gutter press in this country unleashed all the pent-up hatred of the ruling class at what the city represented. They used the incident to conduct a ferocious, collective character assassination of Liverpool people. Entirely ignored were the social conditions which breed mindless hooliganism and soccer violence.
Moreover, evidence clearly pointing to fascist groups both in Britain and in Italy seeking to exploit the football spectacle for their own ends, was airily dismissed by many capitalist commentators.
Robert Maxwell, publisher and owner of the Daily Mirror, revealed on television shortly after the tragedy his deep loathing of Militant and Liverpool city councillors: ‘Why have the Liverpool fans turned nasty? The answer is the Militant Tendency, as an example in Liverpool, that has taken over; they have shown elected councillors and MPs they don’t care for society, or civilised behaviour. This is the kind of thing that encourages hooliganism.’ (Breakfast Time, 30 May.)
Shortly after the Liverpool council’s architect had conclusively proved that the stadium was unsafe. This enabled the Daily Mirror to completely exonerate the Belgian football authorities and the Thatcher government from any blame in the affair. Many fans, quite independently, commented that the fascist British National Party were handing out leaflets on the ferry taking fans to the match. The Socialist group in the European Parliament in Against Racism and Fascism in Europe, published in October 1986, also commented: ‘On the Italian side, it was discovered that young fascist militants had also travelled to Belgium with the intention of having a confrontation with the Liverpool “reds”. They had been told that Liverpool was run my a Communist-dominated administration.’
While the capitalist press and television commentators were demanding every conceivable repressive measure against ‘football hooligans – the birch, imprisonment, the reintroduction of national service, banning alcohol, etc. – the council moved to repair the damage. Labour councillors took the initiative and suggested that a delegation to be sent from Liverpool to Turin to offer condolences and to discuss with the authorities what could be done to get to the root of the social conditions which breed violence.
This proposal was immediately denounced by the Tory leader, Chris Hallows, as ‘insensitive and too early’. Nevertheless the proposal received enthusiastic support from the mass of the population. Church dignitaries and representatives of Everton and Liverpool football clubs were included in the delegation. The Echo pleaded: ‘Let us for once forget politics and act in a manner worthy of this moment.’
This at a time when the entire media was attempting to make the maximum political capital out of the carnage in Brussels! Eric Heffer wrote in the Echo: ‘The awful talk about Liverpool, animals, murderers, the blood bath, etc., has really sickened me… the events have more in common with the Glasgow tragedy [when a stampede at an exit at Ibrox killed dozens of fans] than the Luton football riots [where visiting fans clashed violently with police on the pitch].’ The pressure for the visit was so great that the Tories were compelled to change their mind and reluctantly dragged at the heels of Labour.
The idea of the visit was a courageous act. Some English tourists had been beaten up in Italy in the wake of the Brussels tragedy and a postcard had been sent to a Liverpool newspaper warning ‘We will exterminate you red animals.’ But Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, while making it clear that they were visiting the city to offer condolences to the relatives of those killed, at the same time stated unequivocally that the origins of mindless of soccer hooliganism was rooted in the terrible social conditions which affected both Merseyside and Turin. Derek Hatton declared:
We will also be going to establish links with the socialist parties and trade unionists in Turin, collectively to fight the root causes of the hopelessness felt by many young people. They think there is no future for them whatsoever in society and that they have nothing at all to lose… unemployment among young people in Turin is currently running at 33 per cent.
Unemployment in parts of this city is running at more than 90 per cent. Jointly we will be looking towards resolving the problems that brutalise sections of our young people. We will be exchanging views with the Turin authorities about how we should jointly tackle the social conditions which lead to much of the violence happening in society.
Furious that the Liverpool mission was not approaching the Turin visit in the necessary spirit of ‘humility and contriteness’, the press began to denounce the Labour councillors again. The Daily Mail declared: ‘Liverpool Militants leading Liverpool’s peace mission over the Brussels disaster turned it into a political football yesterday as they flew to Italy.’ Derek Hatton was furiously denounced for publicising the statement of Liverpool investigator into the Heysel Stadium which showed that it was UEFA, the European football association, which arranged and condoned the holding of the match in this stadium, and which therefore bore the prime responsibility for the tragedy.
The visit was very successful in cementing relations between the working people of Italy and their organisations and the Liverpool working class. The delegation spent a large part of their time speaking to the socialist Mayor of Turin and city councillors, but also in visiting the factories in this, one of Italy’s most important industrial areas. On his way back to Britain Derek Hatton commented: ‘The reception in Italy showed that in real terms Italian working people have far more of an affinity with Liverpool working people than our own Prime Minister has.’ This drove Maxwell’s Daily Mirror to paroxysms of fury. It declared:
The Militant Tendency boss of Liverpool council, Mr Derek Hatton, accuses Mrs Thatcher of creating the conditions which led to the riot… the stadium in Brussles may be old. It may not be built to the security specifications of Walton jail, but it served the Belgians well – until Liverpool played there. Let us face the facts. What happened in Brussels was wholly the fault of English football fans and English football clubs, not only last month but over a long period of years.
But Derek Hatton’s statement continued to receive support from the population of Liverpool who were sick of the relentless campaign against the city and its population. Undoubtedly the visit to Turin by the delegation from Liverpool enormously raised the standing of the city council in the eyes of local people. Further links were forged when Juventus fans visited Liverpool a month later. As a consequence of the Turin visit, Terry Harrison also visited Milan later and spoke at a very successful meeting organised by the Italian Communist Party in which he outlined the stand of Liverpool City Council and its link to the struggle for socialism in Europe.
The attempts by the capitalists to use the tragedy as a means of crushing the spirit of the Liverpool working class completely failed because of the speedy reaction and initiatives of the Liverpool Labour movement and in particular of Militant supporters.
Even the capitalist press was compelled to comment as early as September that: ‘Liverpool is shrugging off its soccer shame.’ (Observer, 1 September 1985). This mood was not just because of the successful Turin visit but of the sharpening of the battle with the government and the expectation of a coming clash.