The Months of the Great Slander
When it comes to a threat against their material interests, the educated classes set in motion all the prejudices and confusion which humanity is dragging in its wagon train behind it… the struggle of the other parties among themselves was almost like a family spat in comparison with the common baiting of the Bolsheviks. In conflict with one another they were, so to speak, only getting in training for a further conflict, a decisive one.
In the assault upon the Bolsheviks all the ruling forces, the government, the courts, the intelligence service, the staffs, the government, the courts, the intelligence service, the staffs, the officialdom, the municipalities, the parties of the soviet majority, their press, their orators, constituted one colossal unit. The very disagreement among them, like the different tone qualities of the instruments in an orchestra, only strengthened the general effect… the slanders poured down like Niagara. (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, ‘The Month of the Great Slander’)
Cheated once more of an ignominious Militant retreat, Kinnock prepared for revenge. Under a headline ‘Kinnock outrage’, he threatened expulsions: ‘We’ll handle it, we’ll deal with it, we know we’re going to deal with it – but these things take some time’ (Post, 22 November 1985). The Sun declared, ‘Kick him out’, referring to Derek Hatton. Gavin Laird, right-wing General Secretary of the AUEW on Question Time on BBC television a few days later also came out for the expulsion of the ‘Mersey Militants’.
Remorseless pressure was to be exerted on the leadership of the labour movement to pursue precisely such a course. The National Executive Committee meeting of the Labour Party a few days later, on 27 November, saw the adoption of a resolution to enquire into the workings of the District Labour Party. The right wing obviously conceived this as a constitutional device to carry through the swift expulsion of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, which in turn would break the back of Marxism in the labour movement in Liverpool.
But there are stronger forces at work in society than the bureaucratic whims of the few right-wing leaders of the labour and trade-union movement. The struggle in Liverpool was born out of the social conditions in that city, not because of any alleged conspiracy, manoeuvre or intrigue, as bourgeois thinkers would imagine. The attempt to ‘root out Marxism’ from the Liverpool Labour Party was to preoccupy the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for over a year. It opened up a shameful chapter in the history of the Liverpool and national labour movement.
In the month of December 1985 the hue and cry against Liverpool reached a peak. In the wake of the Labour leadership’s attack on the District Labour Party through the medium of its inquiry, every old slander was dredged up. Piled on top of them were new ones. Liverpool, like the miners’ strike, illuminated the gross bias of the capitalist controlled mass media in the modern epoch. Enormous power has been concentrated in the hands of five millionaires who control more than 90 per cent of the press. Through an intricate web of interlocking companies, these five millionaires also exercise a decisive effect over the television and radio.
In the economic upswing of 1950-75, the anti-Labour media was able to create an illusion of a spurious neutrality. Their bitter class hostility to the socialist aspirations of the Labour Party was somewhat muffled in this period because of the right wing’s domination of the labour and trade-union movement. The Gaitskellite ‘Labour lieutenants of capital’ who held sway both in the Labour Party and in the trade unions were recognised as the ‘second eleven of capitalism’, to be put in to bat whenever there was a sticky wicket, in other words when capitalism was in difficulties.
A decisive change in their attitude was effected, however, as the labour movement began to shift towards the left. The baying and the howling against the left began with the attacks on Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Lawrence Daly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Tony Benn began to move towards the left, under the impact of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) struggles and the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, he became a prime target for the press.
These attacks were merely pin-pricks, however, compared to the venom which was displayed when Tony Benn stood for the Labour Party Deputy Leadership against Denis Healy in 1981. The press consciously set out to break the spirit of Benn’s supporters and to personally demoralise Benn himself. The gutter press compared him to Hitler, Mussolini, and almost every other hate figure in history, combining this with the use of ‘special psychiatrists’ to diagnose Benn’s ‘personality disorders’. The same methods, only in an even more vicious fashion, were employed against the leaders of the Liverpool struggle. The way that this onslaught was met in Liverpool, however, was entirely different to the way in which other sections of the labour movement had reacted to abuse.
The possessing classes have concentrated in their hands colossal means of moulding public opinion. This even went to the extent of open censorship and of the direct interference by former Tory Party Chair Norman Tebbit in the workings of the BBC. While Tebbit’s statements have had the effect of terrorising and intimidating pliable journalists, they have also begun to shatter the myth of ‘media neutrality’. The mass media has ‘influenced’ decisive changes in politics in the modern epoch. Its methods are to emphasise the role of the personality, and to lay bare deficiencies in policy before the eyes of millions. This was not possible in such a direct fashion in the past. The Kinnock leadership, bending to every twist and turn in slanted ‘opinion polls’, has danced to the tune of the ruling class.
The only way to counter effectively the pernicious effect of the mass media is to create a gigantic counter-weight in opinion, in the form of a conscious membership of a mass party. This would create its own ‘public opinion’ through campaigns in the factories, workplaces and on the doorsteps. Unfortunately, the slavish reliance of the Labour leadership on the ‘mass media’ as opposed to building a conscious socialist campaigning rank and file in its own party has resulted in setbacks for the labour movement.
The situation in Liverpool exposed the role of the capitalist media, but it also demonstrated something else: the ability of the labour movement, under Marxist influence, to counter it. Nowhere in Britain has the media gone deeper into the sewers in its attempts to malign the Labour Party and its leadership. Yet it is astonishing to see what little effect it had in shaping the outlook of the working class of Liverpool. They largely remained impervious to the vile propaganda, giving consistent and unprecedented support to Labour in elections.
The role of the media in December 1985 warrants examination because it is an example of the dirty methods that the ruling class will employ on a larger scale against the labour movement nationally in the future. The anti-Labour baiting had been encouraged by the decision of the Labour Party National Executive committee to set up an inquiry into the Liverpool Labour Party. The right wing in the party had to tread very gingerly at this time, but the Tribune group of soft-left MPs (which was in the process of becoming the new right-wing) resolved to support the inquiry into the District Labour Party although they required that there should be ‘no action against individuals’. They were to sing a somewhat different tune after the inquiry report was completed.
The Sun kicked off with: ‘Hatton on the couch’. It proclaimed: ‘The Sun does Neil Kinnock a favour by calling in a shrink’. In justification, it drew on Neil Kinnock’s diatribe: ‘I would have to employ a psychiatrist to identify the motives of some of these people’. Invariably, the ammunition for the press vilification of the left emanated from the mouths of right-wing Labour leaders themselves: ‘Loony lefts’, ‘maggots’, ‘madmen’, ‘literal corruption’ these were just some of the choicest phrases used again and again in an attempt to hammer Labour.
The Sun declared: ‘We called on top London psychologist Jane Fairbank to analyse Hatton’s words and deeds. And her verdict: ‘If you call him a loony lefty, you are absolutely right”.’ Naturally for any capitalist journal, they concluded that, like anybody who challenges the system, he ‘displays all the classic signs of a man who is totally out of touch with reality’.
Using a normal divide and rule ploy of the ruling class one journal after another began to emphasise the role of John Hamilton as opposed to Derek Hatton. New Society carried an entirely false report which claimed that John Hamilton’s phone was bugged and that he was watched by secret cameras. In fact, the cameras had been installed to avoid the attacks on leaders of the council similar to those made by the Black Caucus. The Daily Mirror, while repeating the lies of New Society, was forced to conceded: ‘But Mr Hamilton denied last night that he had attacked Mr Hatton and Militant activists’.
Celebrities Against Labour
The press then wheeled in certain ‘celebrities’ opposed to the council. First the Sun declared: ‘Jim [Saville] quits TV panto in Hatton storm’. This was because of alleged Militant ‘excesses’, but rumour had it that Jimmy Saville was more upset at the prospect of playing the back half of a panto horse behind Derek Hatton!
Expatriate Paul McCartney was also deployed against the city council. The attack of Paul McCartney perhaps came as more of a surprise to some. After all, The Beatles typified the rebellious and radical character of Liverpool’s youth even during the economic upswing. But to the establishment, McCartney was always the smooth and acceptable face of The Beatles. It was John Lennon who penned some of the most radical Beatles songs, such as ‘Power to the People’ which was associated with the magnificent half-million strong demonstration in 1971 against the introduction of anti-union legislation. Lennon marched on this demonstration, campaigned against the Vietnam War, and would never have vilified those fighting for the oppressed and downtrodden in his native city.
In contrast Paul McCartney singled out not just Liverpool, but the miners and the teachers in his sweeping attack in the Sun (9 December 1985). He declared: ‘I was quickly turned off the tactics [of the miners] that led to so much violence’. No condemnation of the violence of the police and the state which resulted in the deaths of miners! On the question of the teachers’ strike he said: ‘Their action has succeeded only in punishing innocent children’. Again, no responsibility is imputed to the government. On the issue of Liverpool’s fight he declared that he was angry at the ‘mismanagement’ of his home city.
What we have here are the sentiments of a former working-class boy, now middle aged and comfortably cosseted by a millionaire’s existence, incapable of comprehending the struggles of ordinary working people to defend and improve their meagre existence. McCartney’s words are remembered with much bitterness by Liverpool workers coming as they did from one who should have identified with the struggle of the oppressed in the city.
Union Right Wing on the Offensive
The offensive against Liverpool came not only from outside the labour movement. The national leadership of the TGWU, the GMBATU, NUPE and NALGO, all sought in their special union journals, letters to the membership, etc, to justify their role in the November crisis.
In the December issue of the TGWU journal The Record, Jack Dromey, principal architect of the TGWU’s retreat in November, stated: ‘We argued that the council should balance its books to protect jobs, services, and the housebuilding programme… bankruptcy was unthinkable’. Dromey justified the retreat on the basis that, because Liverpool was isolated, any other course would have meant that ‘the council would have lost control because the government would have bided its time and then intervened – and we would have seen a new administration dominated by Conservatives and Liberals, which would have slashed jobs and the housebuilding programme’.
Yet it was the capitulation of the originally defiant councils, tacitly supported by the national trade-union leaders, which isolated Liverpool and, following the refusal of the TGWU leaders and others to stand firm in November, it became inevitable that the council would be forced to retreat.
In attempting to justify NALGO’s stand, the union’s journal, Public Service even went so far as to suggest ‘the council’s line became crooked’. NUPE pursued a similar vendetta against the council. But the national GMBATU leaders were the ones who showed the most venom of a trade-union bureaucracy whose ‘advice’ is unheeded. The GMBATU Journal, in January 1986, had the headline, ‘Spend now, Pay later’.
It retailed the myth that the Stonefrost Report would have meant: ‘As little as 92 pence per week on the rates, (and) would have solved the financial crisis, said John Edmonds’. All of this was music to the ears of the capitalist journalists who continued to savage Liverpool.
Occasionally a particle of Liverpool’s case would find expression in the press. Thus front page headlines of the Sunday Times about ‘Hatton’s Army’ were answered by a very brief but effective letter from Ian Lowes in the same paper in December 1985:
The static security force was renamed 18 months ago. It arose out of the old night watchman night security section – staff were regarded and put into uniform, and 75 extra jobs were created. The article refers to accusations that employees in the static security force have intimidated members of opposition parties. No official complaints have ever been made against any officer, no evidence has ever been presented to support such allegations. I challenge anyone, including your newspaper, to bring forward evidence of intimidation by any static security officer.
Needless to say, no such evidence was ever produced by any of the bourgeois journalists who continues to elaborate on the theme of ‘Hatton’s army’.
Meanwhile, the more farsighted capitalist journalists recognised the long-term danger posed to them by the emergence of Militant as a mass force in Liverpool. Michael Jones wrote about: ‘A labour movement that was slow to realise that Hatton’s militants are, in deed as well as in word, a revolutionary force.’ (Sunday Times, 1 December 1985).
Nor did Kinnock receive much thanks from the capitalists for doing their dirty work in Liverpool. On the contrary, his denunciations of Liverpool were used against the whole Labour Party. David Owen declared: ‘Liverpool is a ghastly reminder of what government by the Labour Party means’ (News of the World, 1 December 1985).
Tebbit might continue to attack Kinnock on the ‘loony left’ issue but not so the more farsighted John Biffen, then Leader of the House of Commons. In a speech to business people, he ruminated on the achievements of Thatcherism. In the scheme of things due weight was given to the role of the Labour leadership: ‘We now have the enviable situation where militancy does not intimidate its way to success.
The whitened bones of Scargill will soon be joined by those of Hatton.’ Referring to the dominant ideas of the labour leadership he said: ‘They seek a Wilson-style socialism, tailored for whatever circumstances can provide the chance of power. The Hattons, Heffers, Benns and Scargils are an impediment to such an ambition.’ Vainly looking towards a Lib-Lab pact, Biffen went on: ‘The Kinnock-Hattersley Labour Party, with its far left humiliated, will be in a far better position to come to a post-election understanding, should that be necessary with those other heirs of pragmatic Wilson socialism – the Liberal-Social Democrats.’
The bourgeois recognised early that Kinnock’s role in attacking Liverpool and the miners was an attempt to sanitise the Labour Party, ridding it of all that ‘socialist nonsense.’ But the purging of socialist ideas was precisely the reason why the Labour Party was to lose the 1987 General Election. This defeat will, after a delay, result in an enormous recoil towards the left by the ranks of the labour and trade-union movement. This will be one of the results of the enormous errors made by the labour leadership in their approach towards the struggle in Liverpool.
The main backers of Kinnock on the ‘left’ (or rather the ex-left) were in the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC). The LCC was completely blind to the process taking place within the movement.
With ‘perfect timing’ the LCC decided to call a national annual meeting in Liverpool in early December 1985. After denouncing Militant for being ‘a separate organisation’ with members, it boasted in a press statement: ‘We have been recruiting scores of new members in Liverpool who are fed up with Militant’s intimidatory and reactionary politics and want a genuine democratic left-wing alternative [our emphasis]. Even the Guardian was constrained to comment: ‘Scores of new members? A total of 1300 nationwide… so the LCC is an organisation?’ Such fine constitutional niceties were of course glossed over by the Labour leadership. The LCC were their friends!
Completely standing reality on its head, Peter Hain, vice-chair of the LCC, informed the rally: ‘Liverpool marked the turning point for the Labour left. A new radical left is coming through the party.’ This ‘radical new left’ was to agree with the abandonment of the Red Flag for the pink rose, the elimination of nationalisation measures for a new Labour government, and a virtual abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament by the Labour leadership before the 1987 election.
Paul Lally and Paul Thompson of the Merseyside LCC used every occasion to go into the press to denounce the council. In the Guardian on 9 December, they took up a theme of Kinnock’s and attacked the loan from foreign banks: ‘The subsequent deal was a disgrace. Instead of the relatively painless step of a small rate rise, it has landed the city with crippling loan repayments that seriously threaten important housing and social programmes.’
When Islington, Sheffield, Camden and many other Labour authorities resorted precisely to such schemes in the subsequent two years, there was not a peep of criticism from Hain, Lally, Thompson and the whole gaggle gathered around the LCC.
According to Hain: ‘Militant and other leftists are in a timewarp. They are the old left, their methods are crossed between Stalinism and the boss politics of Chicago’s Mayor Daley.’ The fact that the real Stalinists in both wings of the Communist Party, Euro-communist and pro-Moscow, were baiting Militant, the fact that the LCC was itself a cross between ‘old style’ left reformism and Stalinism, particularly in its strongest base in Scotland – all of this was an insignificant detail for Hain. Needless to day, not one scrap of evidence was produced to back up the slur about Liverpool councillors being comparable to the corrupt ‘Mayor Daley of Chicago.’
But comments of this kind gave the green light to the press to step up a gear in their campaign of vilification against the council and particularly its leading figures.
On 9 December 1985 the Daily Express screamed: ‘Police report on Militants goes to DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions.’ It claimed that there was a probe into claims of corruption and threats in Liverpool. It went on: ‘Police have investigated Liverpool Militant-run council for alleged corruption and intimidation.’
Every old slander against the council or Derek Hatton was regurgitated in what was claimed to be an ‘exclusive.’ Not one of the accusations was new or had any foundation. This did not dissuade the Sunday Mirror: ‘Dandy Derek’s night out on the town, he goes in council limousine to private dinner.’ Derek Hatton was attending a boxing club dinner in his official capacity as deputy leader, for which he received not a penny in expenses. One of the milder comments appearing in bourgeois journals at this time was from David Lipsey who was then a Times correspondent: ‘The City [Liverpool] landed up with a gang of rogues and deadbeats.’ The Economist developed the ‘Mayor Daley, Chicago’ theme:
Mr Hatton has none of the eccentric metropolitan charm of London’s Mr Ken Livingstone. Ranting and philistine, he is a throwback to the politics of the Fedora and the bodyguard… corrupt city bosses… unreformed municipal government, long steeped in corruption but recently captured by a minority faction wholly dominated by trade-union delegates (many almost certainly phoney) to the District Labour Party. Any political machine given such power would be angelic to remain uncorrupt. Militant is by no means the first, even in Liverpool, to wallow in its delights.
These charges of ‘corruption in Liverpool’ were made precisely when it was being revealed that British capitalism was plagued with scandals and corruption. Billions of pounds were being embezzled from the government and the public. Even the Tory Attorney-General condemned the ‘quite unacceptable level of fraud in the City of London.
The frauds involving the collapse of the Johnson-Matthey Bank alone were estimated to have risen to almost £1 billion. A Labour MP, Brian Sedgemore, was suspended from the House of Commons because, exposing the corruption and the rackets involved in Johnston-Matthey, he accused the Chancellor of the Exchequer of ‘perverting the course of justice.’ Scandalously leaders of his own party voted for the suspension.
Even greater sums had disappeared in the swindles at Lloyds of London. Yet not one single financier went to jail. In 1983 alone there were 324 cases of serious fraud. Yet only 37 led to prosecutions. The cry went up from the left within the party that instead of investigating the District Labour Party in Liverpool the Labour front bench should have been demanding a massive public and trade-union enquiry into a system which the corruption in the City of London revealed was sick to the very core.
World in Action
The barrage continued to pour down in an unremitting deluge against the council.
The worst example was undoubtedly the World in Action television programme on 16 December 1985. Under the guise of a news report, a vicious character assassination of Derek Hatton was undertaken by this programme. All pretence of ‘investigative journalism’ was abandoned. World in Action in the past had a certain standing as radical and ‘anti-establishment.’ Never again. It regurgitated all the old allegations which had been answered many times.
Most of the ‘evidence’ was based on the unsubstantiated outburst of a former ‘friend’ of Derek Hatton, Irene Buxton. All the claims of Buxton and other personal and political opponents of Derek Hatton were treated as a fact. Any attempt by Derek Hatton to reply was either shouted down or edited out. Even the Sunday Times, not noted for its sympathies with the left – admitted on 22 December: ‘This was not an interview, this was an interrogation.’ Their television reviewer went on to comment:
Chief Public Prosecutor Irene Buxton… I saw Madame Defarge on Monday night. She was not knitting under the guillotine, she was too busy building the thing. No-one who saw World in Action will forget the vision of vengeance. ‘Did you see the eyes?’ asked a man in a pub in Stoke-on-Trent.
A reader of the Glasgow Herald described how:
Hatton had been approached first and told they would go ahead with all sorts of allegations whether he appeared on it or not. About how they managed to insinuate at one point that Hatton drank. There was an implication that he drank heavily in shady boxing clubs.
Another worker who attended a meeting that Derek Hatton had spoken at in Glasgow wrote to the Glasgow Evening Times:
I shook hands with Derek Hatton twice on Thursday evening. I attended a meeting organised by the Militant Tendency. Derek was the principal speaker. I sat on one of the front seats facing him and I paid particular heed to his forehead and feet. There was no sign of horns or the shape of cloven feet as I had half expected after reading so much about him lately.
It would take a book to answer the slurs and smears of World in Action. What was most shameful about this programme was that the producers never admitted that much of the ‘evidence’ was supplied by the bitter opponents of Militant in the LCC. One of their members was a researcher for this programme.
The day after the programme the capitalist press were in full flight. First fiddle in the chorus of denunciation was once more taken by the Daily Mirror: ‘Exploding of Hatton’. Maxwell’s mouthpiece gloated: ‘World in Action on Monday night was a devastating destruction of Derek Hatton.
Hatton may bluster and cling to office. But that programme finished him.’ Neither the programme nor the Daily Mirror ‘finished’ Derek Hatton. IT was the undemocratic legal servants of the ruling class who put Liverpool City Council out of office. Derek Hatton replied to the programme in a statement in which he said:
I restate my relationship with the Militant newspaper. I am not a ‘member’ of any such organisation and know of no members. I cannot therefore have ‘recruited’ anyone to a non-existent organisation. World in Action spent approximately one hour interviewing me and I answered all the lies and slander they presented. Virtually everything I said was not used.
When he declared that he was consulting his solicitors with a view to taking legal action against World in Action, the Daily Mirror was insistent that he should do so. They declared loftily that unless he took legal action then the accusations of World in Action would stand. Thus one individual, with limited financial means, must be expected to take on, in heavily biased law courts, the might of the television and press moguls, backed up by the full weight of bourgeois public opinion.
Libel cases often have the heaviest costs. After due consideration, he decided to answer World in Action not through the courts but by mobilising the public opinion of the labour movement in a series of meetings up and down the country. The Daily Express on Christmas Eve could not resist reporting that the Director of Public Prosecutions was allegedly considering ‘a decision about whether to bring charges against members of Liverpool’s suspended Labour Party… in the New Year’.
Militant on the Mirror
In the New Year the Daily Mirror resorted to another disgraceful piece of character assassination, this time against Militant supporter Dave Cotterill.
On 17 January 1986 it declared: ‘Scandal of Dave Cotterill… the face of Militant.’ Without the slightest shred of evidence it claimed: ‘He’s jumped the housing queue, he doesn’t pay any rent, who foots the bill?’ Secret photographs were taken of Dave Cotterill, his flat was staked out and his friends were harassed. There was also evidence to show that his mail had been interfered with. Dave Cotterill answered back:
Incredibly the Mirror accuses me of privileges in obtaining a 15th floor flat. Could it be jealous Mirror journalists would like to swap their modest abodes for my two-bedroomed flat? Liverpool has thousands of hard-to-let properties, most of them high-rise flats. Five people previously turned down this ‘plum’ flat. In some cases flats can be allocated within weeks.
I waited nearly four months for my allocation. At the time I was living with two other adults and a child in a two-bedroomed flat which was clearly overcrowded. The Mirror asserts that the tower block is mainly housed by the elderly, yet the lifts only go to the 14th floor, so what use is the 15th floor to the elderly? Out of the last six housing allocations, two others have been single people.
Militant replied to the Daily Mirror with an article: ‘Scandal at the Mirror‘. This revealed the ‘secretive’ role of Maxwell’s empire, showing how the Pergamon Housing Foundation owns the Daily Mirror. The Foundation, the centre of Maxwell’s business octopus, is incorporated in Liechtenstein.
The laws of this tiny tax-haven statelet provides a cloak of secrecy for tycoons with a strong aversion to public scrutiny of their books. Moreover, in 1971 the Board of Trade had declared that: ‘Mr Maxwell is not in our opinion a person who can be relied upon to execute the proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.’
This was the man whose journal spewed forth charges of ‘corruption’ in Liverpool! Turning Maxwell’s charges back against himself Militant declared: ‘Undemocratic? How does Maxwell champion democracy? “I am the proprietor 100 per cent. There can only be one boss, and that’s me”.’
The article continued: ‘On a visit to Poland in 1985… Maxwell broadcast his support for the authoritarian dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy headed by Jaruzelski. He had no sympathy for the struggle of Polish workers for an independent democratic trade union.’
Maxwell was quoted as stating that ‘the problem of Solidarity is now solved’. This ‘solution’ of the Polish totalitarian Stalinist regime was based upon the arrest and imprisonment of the leaders of the independent Solidarity trade union, and the suppression of its organisation.
But Maxwell loftily declared: ‘We will certainly will be devoting less space to Solidarity and more space to improving trade relations between Great Britain and Poland.’
The Old-Swan By-election
The press barrage was a means for ensuring a Labour defeat in the forthcoming Old Swan by-election.
The press devoted unprecedented space to this local by-election in Liverpool. Top political columnist in the Daily Express, John Akass, explained: ‘Why Kinnock wants to lose this poll.’ The Times said: ‘Council poll vial test of Militant policy.’ The fact that the candidate in Old Swan was not a Militant supporter was immaterial to bourgeois commentators.
It is doubtful whether at any time in the history of local government elections in Britain, national journals have devoted more time and space to the outcome of a relatively obscure election in one ward of a major city.
On the eve of the by-election the Daily Mirror resurrected the allegations of corruption surrounding the Asda Superstore planning application. The police, with exquisite timing, announced that they intended to question Derek Hatton over the affair. This was linked to totally unfounded press reports that the police wanted to question him about expenses claims. On the very day of the by-election the Daily Mirror devoted a whole page to these allegations hoping that the ‘new revelations’ would ‘yet deliver a knock-out blow to Militant’s fortunes in the city’.
Labour conducted a creditable campaign in Old Swan. More than 150 attended a public meeting in the area to hear Terry Fields the local MP, Dennis Skinner MP and John Hamilton, Leader of Liverpool City Council speaking. However, there was also a constant uphill battle to counter the SDP campaign, the centrepiece of which was their use of a prominent quote by Roy Hattersley at Labour’s National Executive Committee alleging ‘literal and actual corruption’.
The Labour Party candidate in the Old Swan was Ann Hollinshead who, whilst standing on the left was not a Militant supporter. Unfortunately, no serious attempt was made to counter the press campaign both against the city council and Militant. In addition, days of blizzards up to polling day hindered party activists from reaching enough voters.
The result was a disappointment for Labour. The SDP candidate won with 3313 votes, Labour was second with 2358, while the Tories were way behind with 506 votes, with 126 votes to the independent Liberal. The capitalist press used the results to go to town. The Daily Mirror declared triumphantly ‘Poll defeat for Hatton’s Militants.’ The Times commented; ‘SDP wins a Liverpool seat after 30 defeats.’
Telling the truth for once, the Daily Express declared; ‘Poll defeat cheers Kinnock.’ Flushed by victory, the SDP ‘heralded the fall of Militant‘. The Liverpool Liberals forecast ‘early council control’. Even the Morning Star devoted an editorial to the theme of ‘Labour right wing and Militants rejected.’
The result did not reflect a massive rejection either of Labour or Militant. In 1982 the Labour vote in the ward had been 1869, yet even in defeat 2358 turned out to support Labour in the 1986 by-election. The SDP victory was accounted for by the fact that they had patched up their differences with the Liberals, and more importantly, there was a staggering 43 per cent drop in the Tory vote. It was an enormously ‘politicised’ election with a high turnout of 53 per cent. Given the character of the media campaign, the 2358 who voted Labour must have known that they were voting for Militant socialist ideas.
The Old Sawn defeat was not the only one suffered by Labour at this stage, nor was it the worst.
In the previous week in Motherwall Labour had lost a seat to the Scottish National Party (SNP). Earlier, in December, Labour had lost another seat to the SNP in the Ladywell ward of left Labour MP Robin Cook’s constituency of Livingston. There, Labour’s vote collapsed by over 30 per cent, and the SNP took the seat by 61 votes.
Even Labour Weekly was forced to comment that the campaign in Old Swan ‘was a very dirty campaign’. At first glance it appeared as though the aim of the press to deliver a crushing blow to Militant in Liverpool had succeeded.
They were baying and howling for the heads of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn in Particular. Yet the colossal reservoir of support, the capital which the marvellous campaign in Liverpool had built up, held many more surprises in store for the bourgeois and their echoes within the labour movement.