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
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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