Militant was ideologically narrow – but it offered hope to a city in need

Despite being later reviled, at the time thousands took to the streets in support of the Militant-controlled council’s resistance. 

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Even for a party conference that rarely fails to surprise, the eulogy to Militant in Liverpool offered by Labour’s Dawn Butler was somewhat startling. Many within the party were content that their main conference memory of Liverpool’s Militant council remained Neil Kinnock’s 1985 denunciation of an organisation “scuttling round in taxis handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”.

That the revisionist source of praise for Militant should be Butler – who has campaigned for better representation of women and ethnic minorities within Labour – may particularly surprise, given that Militant cared little for issues of race and gender. Unashamedly workerist, what mattered for Militant was class struggle. All else was subordinate.

This played very well amongst a sizeable section of Liverpool’s white working-class at the time, who looked to their Labour council to defend them against the ravages of Thatcherism (the latter accelerated, but did not start, the city’s decline). Those struggling against mass unemployment and poor housing were not interested in the bearded gesture leftism of CND and “nuclear-free cities”. The women protesting against cruise missiles at Greenham Common meant nothing to them. What Liverpool’s poor wanted was jobs and houses.

Militant offered hope to those in need. Hitherto-moribund local Labour parties swelled in numbers. Thousands took to the streets in support of the Militant-controlled council’s resistance to an unsympathetic Conservative central government. Has there ever been any other occasion when 50,000 people marched in support of a local council? Local election turnouts, previously pitiful, soared. Labour's vote rose by nearly 70 per cent between 1982 and 1984.

Militant even dressed differently. Sharp suits replaced the previous scruffiness and sandals associated with the far-left. The working class had always strived to dress smartly (see Teds, Mods, passim). Militant knew its base because its leading acolytes in Liverpool were of that base.

Their rise in Liverpool was rapid. The decline of the city’s one-time religiously sectarian politics had finally allowed Labour to come to often control the council: the electorate now voted on class lines. Contrary to myth (repeated by Jeremy Corbyn), Liverpool came late to the socialist resistance party, but it made up for lost time. For Militant however, a Labour council was, in itself, useless. For it to be otherwise, it needed to be dedicated to the “true socialism” of Militant.

This ideology meant Militant was loathed by other sections of the Left, which perceived its members as narrow and reductionist Trotskyites. The revulsion was heartily reciprocated by those in Militant who – correctly – suspected that other left-wing councils would settle for accommodation with the Thatcher government.

In his books on Militant, Michael Crick records both admiration and fear at the way Militant captured his local Constituency Labour Party. To understand what Militant did in Liverpool, as they took control of the council in 1983, multiply that numerous times. The faction allowed amiable non-Militant John Hamilton to remain as nominal council leader, but no one doubted where the power lay, most notably with the deputy council leader, Derek Hatton.

What followed were some jobs and plenty of (good quality) affordable houses for Liverpudlians. What also followed were jobs for Militants. Thus a Militant school caretaker became the council’s education chief and Militant employed one of its own to “look after” the city’s very worst-off, the isolated and often ghettoised black population of the area known as s.

Momentum has been seen by some as the successor to Militant – which is perhaps why Butler offered her generous words. Yet Momentum is far more broad-based in its causes. And the party leader likes Momentum, whereas even left-wing Michael Foot described Militant as a “pestilential nuisance”. That said, on non-economic issues, Militant was not always at odds with a more right-wing Labour leadership and was certainly not Corbynista in outlook. It opposed black sections, showed little interest in nuclear disarmament and did not back a united Ireland (Private Eye, admittedly not always the most reliable source, even reported that a few of its Liverpool members participated in the city’s Orange Order marches). One or two of its more prominent figures (by no means all) later managed a seemingly comfortable accommodation with capitalism.

Kinnock’s speech against Militant is seen by some as having paved the way for New Labour, the first sign of a revival of the right which gave notice that leftist extremism would not be tolerated. The question begged is whether Butler’s rehabilitation of Militant’s actions (she was 16 at the time) represents a rebranding of that extraordinary period in Liverpool’s history. 

The orthodoxy has been to vilify that “class struggle” as a disaster for the city and its image – a municipal battle which ended in defeat, disqualification dozens of councillors and financial ruin, from which it took Liverpool decades to recover. Initially, the Militant-led council prised a little more money from the government: the hapless then environment secretary, Patrick Jenkin, was clearly shocked by the people with whom he has having to deal. By 1985, however, Militant confronted another true ideologue. Determined to concede no more, Margaret Thatcher declined to offer more money. The council passed an illegal budget, spending well beyond its means and, as the stand-off worsened, those infamous redundancy notices were prepared by the council for its own workforce. There was only one winner – and it wasn't Militant. The council books were balanced only by expensive loans, the councillors were surcharged for costs and Labour's purge of Militant began. 

The weekend’s “Butlerism” may contribute to an overhauling of the orthodox narrative of disaster, replaced by the romanticism of a narrative of valiant struggle against the evils of Thatcherism. In the current Labour Party, the Butler view may prevail. But the unhappy ending also needs telling. 

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