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19 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:52pm

Militant’s rule ended in tears. But in Liverpool, Derek Hatton was genuinely popular

For Hatton, Kinnock was the failure, the betrayer of socialism, not Militant. Kinnock lost elections. Militant Labour won them.

By Jon Tonge

Persona non grata under Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown, and Miliband, the re-admission of Derek Hatton to Labour’s ranks, almost 33 years after his expulsion, indicates of how the centre of gravity has shifted left within the party.

As recently as May 2015, Hatton’s attempt to re-join Labour had been rebuffed. But at last autumn’s Labour conference in Liverpool, the shadow women and equalities minister, Dawn Butler, fired the starting pistol for the rehabilitation of Liverpool’s Militant Hattonista era, hailing the city’s fightback against the evils of Thatcherism. And under the Corbyn-McDonnell axis, Dapper Degsy is the prodigal son – perhaps a bit errant in his previous ways, but a heroic returnee to the battle against Tory austerity. No apology needed. Welcome back.

Hatton’s enforced departure in 1986 signalled the end of Militant’s domination of Liverpool politics. Even Labour’s most left-wing leader, Michael Foot, regarded Militant as a “pestilential nuisance”. His successor, Neil Kinnock, relished the ridding of the entryists.

The negative image of the Hatton heyday has always been, courtesy of Neil Kinnock’s famous 1985 conference speech, that of a crazed council, “hiring taxis, scuttling around a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”. Militant’s only regret was these notices, not the battles which preceded them.

For Hatton, Kinnock was the failure, the betrayer of socialism, not Militant. Kinnock lost elections. Militant Labour won them in Liverpool, where the Hatton era saw a 70 per cent increase in the party’s vote. In a Hatton versus Kinnock popularity contest in the city, my money would be on Hatton.

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For Labour under Militant were undeniably popular among a big section of Liverpool’s working-class, as the city, with its declining port industries, struggled even more than others under Thatcherism. The Labour council built houses and created jobs. As more prosperous parts of Merseyside, such as Wirral and Southport, not to mention the wider country, looked on aghast, 50,000 people took to the streets to march in support of Liverpool’s Militant-dominated council. When has local government ever attracted such enthusiasm, before or since?

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It may have all ended in tears, near-bankruptcy for the city, surcharges for the councillors who refused to set a “Tory rate”, expensive Swiss loans and an image problem for Liverpool. But in the Militant worldview – one which is shared across a fair percentage of the city’s population – that was all Thatcher’s fault.

Hatton was no Corbynista. Municipal housing and jobs were always of greater concern in Militant’s workerist heyday than the dalliances with Hamas or Hezbollah and Sinn Fein undertaken by Jeremy. Nuclear disarmament, black or women’s identity politics and green issues were always second-order items for Militant, subordinate to a determined class struggle, in which Liverpool was the vanguard.

After class struggle failed, Degsy became one of the left’s more successful capitalists. He was a founder member of the fairly small club of ex-Militants turned into Cyprus property company owners, driving a Jaguar with a personalised number plate (DEG5Y). Perhaps New Labour ought to have adopted him.

And, for Hatton, the fortunes of Everton Football Club probably trumped all. Unlike his erstwhile socialist colleagues such as Tony Mulhearn, he declined to stand for successor left-wing groups and claims fidelity to the Labour Party – just not the Kinnock to Blair three-decade version.

Hatton never gave up on politics, discussing such matters as a  local radio host, whose engaging personality and charm came across. His invariably interesting and thoughtful regular columns in the Liverpool Echo have opposed Brexit and criticised personality-based battles in the current Liverpool Labour Party, in which feuding remains a routine political activity. In Derek’s own day, he has lamented, at least the purges – even Militant’s closest friends would struggle to describe the Tendency as pluralist – were ideological. Just an unpleasant bit of political business – nothing personal you understand.

As for Degsy’s political future at the age of 71, who knows? He denies personal ambitions. Maybe he could run as Joe Anderson’s successor as Liverpool mayor. After all, for all his fame and notoriety, Hatton was only ever deputy leader of the council. Or perhaps we could see Derek Hatton vs Luciana Berger in Liverpool Wavertree at the next election. Whatever Hatton’s controversial past, you wouldn’t be backing the Independent Group candidate in that contest.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.