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Book review: Militant Liverpool - A City on the Edge
Between 1983 and 1987 Liverpool's Labour council, then led by socialists, refused to transfer the burden of Tory government cuts, introduced by Margaret Thatcher, onto the backs of Liverpool's working people. The 'Liverpool 47' councillors adopted the slogan of 'better to break the law than break the poor', first used by the jailed councillors of Poplar in 1921.
Liverpool council -which included supporters of Militant, the Socialist Party's predecessor - was the only local authority that successfully extracted extra funding - £60 million - from Thatcher's government.
The council was never voted out, but pushed out by a combination of the Tories, the national Labour leadership (under Neil Kinnock, now a Lord), and the courts using retrospective legislation. The councillors had carried out their socialist promises, but there has been an attempt to bury the council's achievements in an avalanche of distortion.
Here, one of the Liverpool councillors, Tony Mulhearn, a Militant supporter and now Socialist Party member who was also president of Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) from 1980 to 1986, reviews Militant Liverpool - A City On The Edge, by Diane Frost and Peter North. This book was published by Liverpool University Press this year.
Michael Gove recently paid Ed Miliband the ultimate insult, claiming he was a worse Labour leader than Neil Kinnock. Gove ludicrously refers to the Unite union's doomed attempt to transform New Labour, saying: 'While Kinnock moved bravely and remorselessly to eradicate Militant's influence... Miliband has done nothing to stop the takeover of his own party.'
So, a timely reminder of the ruling class's fear of the example set by the Liverpool 47 heralds another book on the city's socialist council. Three decades on, the authors say: 'this book sheds new light on what is for some a dark period in the city's past best forgotten, while for others is a memory of the city that refused to lie down and die, and a continuing inspiration.'
The introduction, headed 'The Militant years: mad, bad and never coming back', and the first chapter, entitled 'Liverpool from world city to basket case' seem to belie their claimed objectivity.
Indeed, the introduction quotes Kinnock's attack on Liverpool council in full, describing it as 'what many thought was the speech of his life'. It must now be the most repeated speech since Churchill's 'blood, tears and sweat' in 1940.
However, further reading suggests the authors' methodology was ironically suggesting the ugly, proceeding with the good, and finishing with the bad.
The authors draw extensively from Liverpool - A City That Dared To Fight (see below), but the wide range of quotes from friendly and hostile sources indicates comprehensive research.
Quotes gathered from members of the 47 and its allies are faithfully recorded. The 47's programme and achievements are given due prominence and the charge by detractors that the council created its own problems is blown out of the water. The city's economic history and the catastrophic situation that the 47 inherited is accurately outlined.
A balance sheet of contributors suggests, however, that undue weight is given to people opposed to the 47. Of the 17 interviewed nine are hostile, five are friendly, with three neutral.
Surprisingly, among the neutrals is professor Michael Parkinson, author of the 1985 book Liverpool On The Brink, who appears to have modified his animosity when he says that blaming Liverpool's misfortunes on the 47 is 'misplaced'.
The book dwells on the charge that the 47 intimidated their opponents. Apart from Kinnock and former Labour MPs Peter Kilfoyle and Jane Kennedy, the most baleful charges are churned out by ex-councillor Gideon Ben-Tovim and councillor Steve Munby, the latter an ex-Communist Party member and now staunch council member who has not voted against a single cut. Despite him never being seen at a District Labour Party meeting, Ben-Tovim ludicrously claims that any opposition to the 47 at DLP meetings was suppressed by intimidation.
He also makes the absurd claim that the council disregarded the plight of the black working class. He wallows in academic reports and distortions surrounding the Sam Bond affair, which is the book's largest passage.
Much is made of the opposition to Bond's selection as Principal Race Relations Officer. There is no focus on the poisonous amalgam of the Tories, Liberals, the Nalgo and NUT union leaderships, and the Communist Party leadership or the media's hysterical role with the Liverpool Echo, Murdoch and Maxwell fermenting opposition to the appointment.
However, the book records that the 47 pumped more investment into the predominantly black Granby area of the city than any other area and, in addition, employed more black youth than any previous administration.
By contrast, both Munby and current Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson have continued with a catastrophic decline in the council's employment of both white and black workers. When the 47 left office in 1987, over 30,000 workers were employed directly by the council. That figure is now below 8,000.
The book recognises the 47's massive popular support, reflecting Liverpool's desires and aspirations, even going beyond Labour's traditional working class vote. For instance the authors quote a 'besuited investment manager' at a recent drinks reception for green investors who defended the council, saying: 'What did you expect us to do back then, give up and die?'
The final chapter on the aftermath makes no mention of right-wing Labour's catastrophic role. Following the undemocratic dismissal and surcharging of the 47, the new council put up rents, introduced redundancies, implemented the poll tax and crushed democracy in the party. This resulted in its rejection by the working class, leading to Labour's decline by the mid-1990s to an insignificant rump of 12 council seats.
The closing pages give prominence to more hostile observations. Shamefully the 47's deputy council leader, Derek Hatton, justifies Mayor Anderson's cuts policy claiming that what happened in the 1980s could not be repeated.
The key question of the catastrophic absence of leadership today is studiously ignored.
Compared with some, this book offers a reasonably balanced evaluation of the Liverpool events, but to acquire a full understanding Liverpool - A City That Dared To Fight is still essential reading.
What was achieved
- 6,300 families rehoused from tenements, flats and maisonettes
- 2,873 tenement flats demolished
- 1,315 walk-up flats demolished
- 2,086 flats/maisonettes demolished
- 4,800 houses and bungalows built
- 7,400 houses and flats improved
- 600 houses/bungalows created by 'top-downing' 1,315 walk-up flats
- 25 new Housing Action Areas
- Six new nursery classes built and open
- 17 Community Comprehensive Schools established following a massive reorganisation
- £10 million spent on school improvements
- Five new sports centres, one with a leisure pool attached, built and open
- 2,000 additional jobs provided for in Liverpool City Council Budget
- 10,000 people a year employed on Council's Capital Programme
- Three new parks built
- Rents frozen for five years
Manchester: Rally and exhibition - Liverpool's 1983-87 socialist council
Monday 30 September. Rally 7 - 9pm. Exhibition opens 5.30pm, with refreshments.
Methodist Central Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester
Speakers include Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn, co-authors of 'Liverpool - A City That Dared to Fight'
Hosted by Manchester Unite local government branch.
Militant Liverpool - A City on the Edge by Diane Frost and Peter North £16.99
Liverpool: A City That Dared To Fight by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn £11.99
The Rise Of Militant by Peter Taaffe £11.99
All prices include p&p
PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD
020 8988 8789
Order online from Left Books at: www.socialistbooks.org.uk
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In The Socialist 25 September 2013:
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