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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses