Working-class hero

Left Behind: lessons from Labour's heartland

Peter Kilfoyle <em>Politico's, 327pp, £17.99</em>


Relying on deep popular reaction to Thatcherite politics, a small group strongly attached to its own self-interests took over the Liverpool Labour Party in the early 1980s. The group intimidated opponents, relying on elected members' fear of losing office to keep them in line. In the face of deep national electoral discontent, it persisted in its idiosyncratic political line, often drawn from inappropriate foreign examples. Yep, new Labour certainly learnt a lot from Militant in Liverpool.

To anyone who knows Peter Kilfoyle, his disdain for the fellow travellers, in whatever guise, will come as no surprise. Indeed, many of us wondered how he stuck it out on the front benches for as long as he did. Left Behind reveals exactly why Kilfoyle was the perfect person to flush out Militant and its cronies. His indignation was unfeigned at what Militant, in collaboration with Margaret Thatcher, had done to Merseyside. He had principles, he was a fighter, and he knew that bullies usually crumble if confronted. And he was a militantly democratic socialist with no time for neo-Bolshevik bullshit.

In his account of those times, when - and this is not to exaggerate - the future election prospects of the national Labour Party were being fought for in the committee rooms of Liverpool, Kilfoyle describes his opponents, and indeed his allies, warts and all. It is easy to forget quite how bad things were in Liverpool. I recall writing in the NS about the chair of the education committee arriving to close down a further education centre because it occupied premises with a high resale value. "You've got courses in astronomy," he said. "What do the working class want with astronomy?"

In fact, the old Labour movement in Liverpool had a healthy respect for autodidacts and working-class intellectuals such as Kilfoyle. It took the new lumpen Militants to regard anyone with three CSEs as a dangerous intellectual. And it took new Labour to pull up the ladder in its version of limiting horizons by abolishing grants and imposing university fees. Many of us wondered then why Kilfoyle did not quit the front benches. I know he considered it.

When I moved to New York a decade ago, I was more amused than horrified to discover American students, speaking with an acquired Merseyside nasal intonation, selling Militant. On the other hand, I was as horrified as Kilfoyle to discover an endless stream of Labour politicians arriving in the US to "learn lessons". They returned with atavistic plans to emulate all the most barbaric elements of American life, from stuffing prisons to emptying the welfare rolls. Kilfoyle visited as well, but he learnt the apposite lessons of the perils of donor-centred political campaigns, unencumbered by party memberships, or by socialism in any form.

Kilfoyle has the engaging Liverpool (and Irish) habit of assuming that everyone knows, or is interested in, everyone else by name. It is an invaluable trait in a city of tribal politics. But I cannot help thinking that those who did not have to live through those events in Liverpool may find this book confusing. Many of those about whom Kilfoyle writes certainly deserve the nonentity to which he so scathingly condemns them.

Most of those characters, however, were just as he depicts them. Like many current MPs, whether from misguided motives or fear for their own careers, Militant supporters in Liverpool caused immense harm, which is why Left Behind deserves to be read. Even so, I prefer to regard it as a curtain-raiser for an equally scathing expose of new Labour and its friends, of which he gives such tantalising glimpses in his final chapter.