Into Illegality In Liverpool

Chapter Twenty-Six


MARCH 29 1984 was a decisive date in the history of Liverpool. The council was due to meet to discuss Labour’s so-called ‘illegal budget’.

 Coinciding with this, the city saw one of the largest city-wide general strikes in Britain’s history. 

Upwards of 50,000 workers and young people packed the city centre. This showed the depth of support for the stand taken by Liverpool’s Labour council against Tory cuts. Castle Street facing the town hall was jam packed with demonstrators shouting support for the councillors inside. The crowd sang in football style: “Labour council, Labour council, we support you evermore”.

Inside, the council meeting had ended in a tactical victory for Labour. The Tories, the Liberals and right-wing Labour failed to impose a cuts budget. On rising to reply to the Liberals, Labour’s deputy leader Derek Hatton was greeted by cheers from the public gallery, and applause punctuated his speech.

The choice for the people of Liverpool was clear. Either to back Labour’s budget or to go back to the Dark Ages of Liberal-Tory alliance. The Council was only asking for £30 million from the Government’s contingency funds. In the recent budget, the Tories had given £35 million to 650,000 already earning over £15,000 a year. (1)

Liverpool’s stand had not been arrived at by an easy route or without controversies both within the labour movement and also within the ranks of Militant itself.

Militant debate

We debated our approach at every stage. This was not uncommon in the labour movement despite the shrieks of the right wing about ‘secret caucuses’ of the left. The right and the left have always discussed their different approaches. Militant was no different. When the right, and an increasing section of the ‘careerist left’, criticized us for being a ‘party-within-a-party’, it was because Militant supporters were better organised than them.

In January 1984 a National Militant Editorial Board had been held in London, with Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton attending. The battle in Liverpool, which was now entering a decisive phase, was a main item of discussion. Contrary to the myth of the press that Militant was ‘monolithic’, then and subsequently there were different views on how to approach issues. 

In the discussion at the NEB it was the opinion of Ted Grant that the unity of the Liverpool Labour Group would fracture under the pressure of the situation. He argued vehemently that enough right-wing councillors would defect to the Tory/Liberal camp in order to prevent the passing of an ‘illegal budget’. 

The contrary view was advanced by Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton, supported by myself, Lynn Walsh and others at the meeting. They argued that such was the overwhelming pressure of the labour movement and the working class that even nominal right-wingers could be swayed to support the position of the left. Such views were dismissed by Ted Grant. He argued that we should prepare for right wing defections in Liverpool. Failure to to do this would demoralise Militant supporters.

Ted Grant’s views that the illegal budget would not be passed proved to be wrong. True, some right-wingers did defect – the ‘scabby seven’ – but enough rallied to the side of Labour to prevent the Liberal/Tory budget from going through in March.

95 per cent victory

Following a series of skirmishes with the Tory government, including negotiations with the Environment Secretary, Patrick Jenkin, agreement was reached, which was “a 95 per cent victory”. An assortment of opponents of Liverpool and Militant – the so-called Communist Party, the varieties of ultra-left sects, together with the Tory government – tried to down play Jenkin’s and Thatcher’s retreat. In the council chamber a demoralised Trevor Jones in the debate over the package “quoted from Socialist Worker” which accused the Labour council of a “sell out”. (2)

However, the reaction of the capitalists to the £60 million concessions won by Liverpool said everything about the victory. The Times thundered: “Danegeld in Liverpool” (Danegeld was the tribute paid by English kings in the tenth century to buy off Danish invaders). Besides itself with fury, it went on:

Today in Liverpool, municipal militancy is vindicated… a third rate provincial politician, a self-publicising revolutionary… Mr Derek Hatton has made the government give way… Mr Hatton and his colleagues threatened a course of disruptive action. Their reward is the abrogation of the financial targets which 400 other local authorities have been told are immutable… in order to buy off Militant. (3)

These were heady days for Militant supporters in Liverpool. The campaign was marked in April with a hugely successful Militant public meeting, attended by 500 workers, followed in May with another stunning victory for Labour in council elections. The 9 April meeting at St George’s Hall received the platform speeches enthusiastically: the speakers included myself, Steve Sullivan, a miner on strike at Sutton Manor, Tony Mulhearn, newly elected to the city council, Derek Hatton and Terry Fields MP. 

On the evening of 29 March when the council had taken the first step along the road of threatening an ‘illegal budget’ the Militant premises on Lower Breck Road was crowded with people clammering to join. Committed supporters of Militant were excluded from the building so that new ‘recruits’ could crowd into a meeting addressed by leaders of Militant. Over 40 people agreed to join Militant on that night alone.

Given the rapid growth of Militant it was little wonder that alongside the thousands of daily items in the press ‘a more serious’, more intensive effort would be made to detail the growth of our support. The first into the field was Michael Crick, a journalist with Channel Four News. His book called Militant and the second edition, The March of Militant, claimed to show the: “origins, organisation and aims of Militant, which is now Britain’s fifth strongest political party”. (4)

The first edition of Crick’s book came out in 1984 but the second edition was produced in 1986 when the witch-hunt was in full swing. In 1984, in his first edition Crick was forced to concede “Militant is here to stay”, as its ideas and influence continued to grow. His book also brought us recruits in Australia and Canada! (5)

Wembley, three years in a row

If there were any doubts that Militant was still on a rising curve these were answered by the 3,000 supporters who once more turned up to Wembley for what was now the annual rally of Militant. We commented:

Such was the mood and humour that passers-by could have been forgiven for thinking the crowds were returning from a Wembley Cup Final. Maybe a bit smaller than that at the moment, but we’ve booked the Albert Hall for next year – (3 November). (6)

Frances Curran, then the LPYS representative on Labour’s NEC, was only three when Militant was first produced! She addressed the 1984 rally pointing out,

My parents wouldn’t have believed what is happening today to young people. A third of secondary school children have taken drugs, and there are 20-year-olds who have never been able to get a job.

She went on to point out that

the YS have collected £250,000 to £300,000 that we know of for the miners. They organised the first demo in the Notts area in Mansfield and Steve Morgan, the previous YS representative on the NEC, proposed the 50p levy on all party members. (7)

Tony Benn amongst many others spoke at this rally and eleven Labour MPs sent congratulations. Again the fighting fund collection exceeded all expectations with £12,000 raised.