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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.