A Workers’ MP On A Workers’ Wage: Coventry And Liverpool

Chapter Twenty-three


FAR weightier matters than a Labour Party witch-hunt were, however, on the minds of workers in the first part of 1983. 

In Liverpool, for instance, the Liberal/Tory controlled city council had decided to turn over refuse collection and street sweeping to private contractors. A mass campaign – “The Campaign against Privatisation” – launched by the manual workers led by Branch 5 of the GMBATU was a model; it both informed the workforce and prepared them for battle.

The stewards decided to call a mass meeting. This was then followed by a decision calling for an all-out strike by all council workers to coincide with the council meeting called to make the decision on privatisation. 

The majority of the workforce voted in favour of strike action. On 27 April 1983, just before the Council elections, 20,000 city council workers struck in response to the Joint Shop Stewards Committee’s call for action against privatisation. 

Thousands lobbied the council’s Finance Committee meeting. Their anger was directed at Liberal leader Trevor Jones, who was virtually mobbed. He was only able to enter the meeting after the intervention of shop stewards. Faced with an all-out indefinite strike ten days before the local elections, Trevor Jones backed down.

At the council meeting, when the Tories moved the privatisation proposal, the Liberals voted with Labour to beat the Tories! Trevor Jones’s intention was to bide his time, work for victory in the May elections and then to recommence an all-out offensive against the workers. He was severely disappointed. Labour romped to victory on the basis of a radical fighting socialist programme. Jones then declared: “It [the election result] will eventually lead to the overthrow of free society as we know it.” (1)

Labour had held on to all its seats and gained eleven others at the expense of the Liberals and the Tories. The Labour vote increased by 40 per cent. Yet the Liberal’s election campaign consisted mainly of smear tactics directed against Militant supporters in the Labour Party. Following the victory Tony Mulhearn declared: “The nonsense of the Rolls-Royce, gold chain, and coach and horses is not needed in Liverpool… possibly the gold chain will be put in a museum along with the defeated Liberals”. (2)

22,000 more Liverpudlians had voted for Labour because of its programme of “no privatisation, a £2 rent cut, no spending cuts, a massive housing repairs programme, 6,000 new council houses, 4,000 new council jobs and no rate rises to compensate for Tory/Liberal cuts”. Significantly in Broadgreen, soon to be an area for an historic victory for Marxism and Trotskyism, Labour’s vote climbed by 50 per cent.

This result, which gave an enormous boost to supporters of Militant, was the ideal dress-rehearsal for the 1983 General Election. Thatcher seized the favourable conjuncture provided by the victory in the Falklands to “go to the country” in June 1983.

A minimum of 200 canvassers were involved in Broadgreen over weekends, with the average being 250. On election day 500 workers from Liverpool and other parts of the country worked in the Broadgreen constituency. Few other campaigns had generated such commitment and enthusiasm. 

Only those of Pat Wall in Bradford North and Dave Nellist in Coventry South East had brought forth a similar response. However, the Labour right systematically sabotaged Pat Wall’s campaign. Terry Fields, on the other hand, merely had to contend with the slanders of the Liberals and the Tories. So effective was his campaign that the Liberal candidate confessed that it was “unlike anything he’d seen in the country, even in by-elections”. (3)

Terry Fields spoke at more than ten factory gate and canteen meetings. At a bin depot about 200 drivers waited from 6.30 am to 7.30 am for a gate meeting before starting work. 2,000 gathered on 17 May for a North West Regional Labour Party rally at St George’s Hall, where Michael Foot spoke alongside seven Labour parliamentary candidates. Foot was compelled to hail the recent local election victory:

It was tremendous the way Liverpool has set the standard in local elections just before the general election. It was very fitting that just before we cleared the Tories out of Westminster, we, here in Liverpool, should have such a wonderful success in the council elections. (4)

Labour nationally received its lowest share in the poll since 1935. Nevertheless the 1983 general election was not the overwhelming triumph for Thatcher which historians claim. The popular vote for the Tories fell by nearly two per cent, or 700,000 votes, compared to 1979. At the same time three million fewer workers voted Labour than in 1979. The capitalist inspired scheme for splitting the Labour vote had partially succeeded. Disenchanted Tory voters and some Labour voters also swung over to support the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

The right wing had effectively sabotaged Labour’s campaign. Denis Healey and James Callaghan explicitly distanced themselves from the manifesto commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Labour’s radical proposals were undermined when the Labour leadership was incapable of answering the question: “How will it be paid for?” Foot emphasised the need for borrowing, devaluation and reinforced the impression that Labour intervenes to spend its way out of a crisis. This raised the idea of a massive expansion in public expenditure but without the economic base to sustain it.

The election results in Liverpool, however, stood out in marked contrast to most other regions. Completely against the national trend there was a swing to Labour in Liverpool of two per cent. This, we commented, “was due in no small measure to the influence of Militant supporters in that city, where Terry Fields was elected as MP in Liverpool Broadgreen”. (5)

Alongside Terry Fields in Parliament was Dave Nellist, Labour MP for Coventry South East, who had also chalked up a notable victory in the general election.

A moderate off his knees

In Parliament the working class found no better representatives than Terry Fields and Dave Nellist. The bitterness, the class loathing, which the majority of workers on Merseyside felt for the Tory victors, was voiced in Terry Fields’s maiden speech in Parliament. 

New members of the House of Commons are expected to introduce themselves, heartily congratulate opposition speakers, and wish well to their retiring or defeated constituency rivals. Such pleasantries were cast aside when Terry Fields rose to speak. 

He made it clear he was there to represent the Liverpool workers. They had elected him to fight on their behalf, not to go around congratulating the Tory enemy. He was there not to appeal to the ruling class, but to express the real feelings of the working class against the Tory government and the system they represented. His full speech was printed in Militant and was widely circulated in the labour movement both on Merseyside and nationally.

The general gloom that had descended on the labour movement in Britain in the aftermath of Thatcher’s return to power did not affect Militant supporters given the success in Liverpool and in Coventry. And within a month of Thatcher’s victory Militant featured a dispute at “Lady at Lord John” in Liverpool which was to become a landmark in the struggle against sexual harassment at work. 

This dispute became the basis for Lezli-Anne Barratt’s marvellous film Business as Usual, starring Glenda Jackson, John Thaw and Cathy Tysone. This dealt powerfully with the issue of the emerging power of working-class women and their refusal to accept the conditions of the past, including sexual harassment. Audrey White had been sacked after protesting about sexual harassment of staff at the Liverpool branch of the firm. Sexual harassment, Militant declared, was

a product of society’s attitude that women are only a temporary workforce and that women’s real role in society is only in relation to men and that men can treat women as goods and chattels in the home and at work, an attitude that goes back as long as private property has existed, from slavery to capitalism. 

The “Lady at Lord John” dispute helped a lot of men both in the unions and outside to realise that sexual harassment is a class matter and cannot be fought by individual women. (6)

A very successful picket was conducted outside the shop which resulted in many women being brought over to trade unionism as a result of this heroic struggle. Audrey White was actually removed from the shop by police when she was dismissed and the company tried to use the law to stop trade union action. The pickets were served with an injunction, accusing them of molesting and conspiring to do damage under the Tories’ anti-union laws. 

But the pressure of public opinion which had built up over the court action resulted in the right to picket being endorsed. The management pulled back from using further legal measures for fear that this would widen the dispute. Despite all the obstacles in their path the strikers forced the company to re-employ Audrey White with back pay and even a discount for union members was won. Militant commented: “This dispute has not only been an education to the pickets and the trade union movement but also to the four million unorganised shop and office workers”. (7)


At the same time there was gathering opposition to the Tories’ Youth Training Scheme (YTS). Half a million youth were to be subjected to industrial conscription at £25 a week. Dave Nellist in a forceful maiden speech in the House of Commons, highlighted the gathering opposition to the YTS. He ardently championed the rights of youth in the nine years that he was in Parliament. In his speech he pointed out:

only one in ten of those leaving the fifth form last summer have found work. In a city (Coventry) that was built on engineering, only 243 out of 5,000 who left school this summer found apprenticeships… I speak today as the youngest Labour member elected in last month’s general election. That gives me a special responsibility in this place to champion rights, and to give voice to, the hopes and aspirations of millions of young workers.

Pointing to a switch in the attitude of the Tory government towards youth he asked:

What changed the attitude of the Tory Party during the past four years… the principle answer is the events of the summer of 1981 – the riots on the streets of Liverpool, London, Manchester and other major cities – a desperate action by tens of thousands of teenagers to draw attention to the poverty, despair, demoralisation, harassment and anger of being young and unemployed under a Tory government… 

Thousands of YOPsters have been recruited by the Labour Party Young Socialists into membership of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Workers’ Union and the National Union of Public Employees and into other non-general trade unions… 

I issue a warning to the government. Do not be misled by the siren voices of the media into believing that somehow in the 1980s we are witnessing the creation of a right-wing generation of youth or that the labour movement is demoralised or weak when faced with another term of Tory rule… 

Our labour produces the wealth, which the government’s capitalist society squanders on useless weapons of nuclear destruction, on tax cuts to the super-rich, on stockpiles of food at a time of growing poverty and on keeping five million people unemployed. As, in the 1980s, society approaches a crossroads, the socialist programme will gain significant support. (8)

Back to Wembley

In September 1983, just four months after Thatcher’s election victory, in organising another rally at Wembley, Militant gave a stunning demonstration that despite all attacks it remained a powerful and growing force. 

Almost 3,000 workers and youth packed the Wembley Conference Centre. In the year that had elapsed between the Labour Movement Conference against the witch-hunt and this event, Militant could now claim that “two Militant supporters spoke as Labour MPs.” Sitting alongside them on the platform was Derek Hatton, soon to be a household name, who declared that now Liverpool would carry out its promises of creating new jobs and building houses. 

On behalf of the Editorial Board, I reminded the audience that in the previous year the Labour Party right wing had started the process of expelling the five Militant Editorial Board members by saying ‘cut off the head of Militant and the rest would die’. They had noticeably not made the same expulsion threat “to people like Chapple [then leader of the EETPU and also the current chairman of the TUC] for their anti-Labour Party statements.” 

But, the right had “only succeeded in expelling us back into the movement.” I called for “all who agreed with our policies to join with Militant in transforming the labour movement to a powerful body which could itself change the whole of society.”

Other speakers included the inspirational Anton Nilson, the legendary Swedish worker, who had become a pilot with the Red Army during the Russian Revolution. Dave Nellist spoke, as did Terry Fields who joked “that he had thought of turning up in disguise because of the dangers of being associated with Militant”. 

Ted Grant, representatives of the youth, and Micky Duffy from the Northern Ireland Public Services Association (NIPSA) also spoke. One of the most outstanding features of the rally was that £40,000 was promised for the Militant Fighting Fund. (9)

Labour Party Conference

The very success of Militant was itself a reason for the right wing to press ahead with the expulsion of the Editorial Board members at the October 1983 Labour Party Conference at Brighton. Against the background of huge TV and press coverage – which assumed the proportions of a rugby scrum outside the conference hall – the five of us were allowed into a closed session of conference to appeal against the NEC’s decision to recommend their expulsion. 

The right-wing officialdom went to extraordinary and ludicrous lengths in order to prevent the five from receiving any press publicity. They were ushered in through a back door and asked to leave through a back door as well, an offer which we none too politely refused. A Labour Party official rugby tackled a TV cameraman and a well-known commentator in order to prevent us being filmed for the TV News.

Compelled to give the five a hearing because of the threat of transgressing the principles of “natural justice”, the Labour Party conference session dealing with the witch-hunt was a farce. No court in the land would have allowed the defence first of all to state its case before the prosecution outlined its charges. But this was precisely the format adopted in dealing with our expulsion. We were allowed five minutes each to make our “appeal”.

Predictably the votes, which had already been lined up by right-wing union general secretaries, were heavily in favour of the platform’s recommendation for expulsions. But 80 per cent of the delegates from the Constituency Labour Parties and a considerable number of rank-and-file trade union delegates voted against expulsion. This was all the more remarkable given the fact that the conference showed a powerful urge for unity.

The election of Neil Kinnock as the new leader and Roy Hattersley as his deputy seemed to many to point to a more favourable period for Labour. While there was big support for Kinnock, this was tempered with a determination on the part of the delegates not to divide the movement. An extremely sympathetic attitude was shown in the conference sessions and afterwards in private discussion towards the Editorial Board members and other Militant supporters. With a mixture of amusement and indignation the press and the Labour Party right wing confronted the spectacle of the five Editorial Board members, the day after their expulsion, sitting in the conference hall as Militant representatives.

In the general euphoria surrounding the election of Kinnock, Militant, virtually alone, struck a critical note. It warned about the future consequences of a Kinnock leadership. Kinnock was the perfect “left” screen, behind which the right could begin the counter-revolution against the gains on policy and programme registered in the period of 1979 to 1982. 

A veiled counter-revolution by the right was set in train soon after the election. The reselection of Labour MPs was to be challenged by the right. All the conservative forces in the Labour Party – the place men and women, self seekers, the party’s own officialdom, and the union leadership – looked for a figure to front their “counter-revolution”. 

Kinnock had been sounding out this layer in the period before the election and in an energetic campaign for the leadership afterwards. The support he got from the unions came from the right and the nominal “left”. Kinnock had all the necessary attributes required by Labour’s conservative, privileged stratum of MPs, councillors and the rest. He still claimed to be on the left, although he had long since distanced himself from Benn and had voted for the expulsion of the Militant Editorial Board in February 1983. 

The election of Roy Hattersley as leader, rather than deputy leader, would have complicated the task of shifting the axis of the labour movement to the right. Hattersley, at the Labour Party conference two years later, publicly recognised this when he said that the party had chosen correctly when they elected Kinnock in 1983! Hattersley is not known for false modesty!