Militant Liverpool by Diane Frost and Peter North: The secret of a revival - we stopped feeling sorry for ourselves

In recent years, with the help of a substantial capital injection from the EU, Liverpool has undergone a long-overdue renaissance. A friend of mine once asked the city’s former Anglican bishop David Sheppard how he explained the revival, to which Sheppard

Militant Liverpool: a City on the Edge
Diane Frost and Peter North
Liverpool University Press, 223pp, £14.99

Over the past 50 years, Britain’s manufacturing base has steadily declined, as once thriving industries have fallen into the hands of multinational corporations and transferred to the cheap labour economies of the Far East. All of our great northern cities have suffered from this phenomenon but none more than Liverpool, once one of the great port cities of the empire. In the last five decades of the 20th century, the population of Merseyside halved as people moved away in search of work, leaving dereliction and despair in their wake.

These problems were exacerbated by a history of sectarian politics, appalling industrial relations and a growing sense of victimhood. In 1983, on the night that the Labour Party suffered its greatest ever defeat, Liverpool elected a Labour council. Although no more than a quarter of the councillors were paidup members of Militant, the Trotskyite sect, they wielded a disproportionate influence. Derek Hatton soon became a household name and, before long, he and his colleagues had dragged the council into an unwinnable confrontation with the Thatcher government.

This book is a readable, if somewhat repetitive and sloppily edited account, by two Liverpool academics, of the three tumultuous years during which the Militant-dominated council ruled Liverpool. It is based on interviews with many of the leading protagonists. The council’s philosophy was workerist and unremittingly confrontational. The private sector barely featured in its plans. It was committed to a substantial programme of public works, regardless of the available resources. It saw nothing wrong with the tradition that public-sector jobs were allocated by union shop stewards – with the result that there was scarcely a non-white face to be seen.

The council’s first act was to set a deficit budget and then demand that the government make up the shortfall with money that it claimed had been “stolen” from Liverpool by a succession of poor rate support grant settlements. Initially, it had some success. A Tory local government minister, the genial Patrick Jenkin, conceded to much of the council’s demand, only to be rewarded with a huge bout of triumphalism, the gist of which was that the Liverpool working class had, through mass action, defeated the Tories.

This was a serious misreading of the tea leaves. When, the following year, the councillors attempted to pull the same stunt, they found Jenkin rather less amenable. Who would blink first? By now, the council was claiming that the government had “stolen” £350m of Liverpool’s money.

The Tories were having none of it. Far from increasing the council’s housing allocation, they cut it. The council plugged the gap with £90m in loans from French and Swiss banks. Despite this, in 1985, the councillors refused to pass a budget, in defiance of warnings from the district auditor that they could be disqualified and surcharged. The council racked up huge debts. All attempts at compromise were rejected. A long struggle ensued, during which 30,000 public employees were issued with redundancy notices. The debacle ended in recrimination, with 47 councillors being surcharged and disqualified from office and the city handed back to Liberal Democrat control.

If Liverpool’s militants expected much sympathy from the wider Labour movement, they were disappointed. Neil Kinnock, then party leader, regarded them as a liability, alienating the public and providing the Tories and the tabloid media with yet another stick with which to beat the poor old Labour Party. In due course, the Liverpool party was purged and the Militants expelled.

In recent years, with the help of a substantial capital injection from the EU, Liverpool has undergone a long-overdue renaissance. A friend of mine once asked the city’s former Anglican bishop David Sheppard how he explained the revival, to which Sheppard replied: “We stopped feeling sorry for ourselves.”

"In the last five decades of the 20th century, the population of Merseyside halved as people moved away in search of work, leaving dereliction and despair in their wake." Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.