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.”