Book Review; Militant Liverpool, A City On the Edge by Diane Frost and Peter North (Liverpool University press)

book review

In 1982 I moved to Liverpool to take up a job as a careers adviser, working in an office on a council estate in the north of the city. Two questions were asked of me as I started my first day at work; How did a Manc get a job in Liverpool and what football team (Everton or Liverpool) did I support? I was only 30 miles down the motorway from my hometown of Manchester but it seemed like I had entered a completely different world.

In this book Diane Frost and Peter North mark the 30th anniversary of the election of a Labour Council in Liverpool;
The actions of the council in the years 1983-85 mark the time that the city began to turn the tide. Far from putting off or delaying the regeneration of the city, the council’s actions represented a shout of anger and pain against years of poor leadership and private sector disinvestment, the economic and social policies of national government, and the global changes in the economy that at the time only dimly understood.

In 1983, alongside other cities such as Manchester and Sheffield, they decided to refuse to make the cuts. But, unlike the other cities, Liverpool was in a much worse position in terms of its infrastructure and economy:

Liverpool in the early 80s was, then, a city in crisis. For some, it was tragic that throughout the 1970s the city suffered from a triple crisis; an economic crisis in common with the rest of the country that saw manufacturing and port employment decimated; a geographical crisis that left a largely derelict city marooned on the wrong side of the country; and a political crisis as the city’s leaders failed to rise to these challenges.

In national politics in 1983 Margaret Thatcher was at her most popular, winning the General Election with a majority of 144 seats, but in Liverpool there was a wave of militancy across the city, not just in a highly politicised Labour Party but also in local communities and in the trade unions. After years of Tory or Liberal administrations Labour gained 46% of the vote and now had 51 seats in comparison to the Tories and Liberals, who together had 48 seats. Dubbed a “Militant council”, in fact only 9 of the 51 new councillors were paid up members of the Militant tendency. But, as Derek Hatton explains, all Labour councillors agreed that they going to take a very different path to past administrations:

We established that principle from the very word go that we were not going to put the Tory cuts on the backs of ordinary people because we had hammered the Liberals in the past for doing it, so we were not going to do that.

Unlike other histories of this period, Frost and North have used the oral testimonies of many of the key characters to explore the events of that period and to put into context an era that outside Liverpool has been erroneously written off as a time when a small gang of political extremists hijacked the city.

Working in Liverpool between 1982 and 84 I was shocked by the poverty that I saw around me, and the crippling cycle of unemployment which affected whole generations of families. What was heartening, and quite different to Manchester, was the highly politicised working class that I came across and a sense of pride in being Liverpudlian. This was translated into large demonstrations that took place in the city during the years I lived there and also to the high levels of activity in the trade unions, particularly my own, Nalgo.

Nalgo members demonstrate on budget day

Nalgo members demonstrate on budget day

In 1983 Liverpool Council told the Conservative Government that it would not make cuts. Indeed they created more jobs as they believed that only the public sector could produce an economic recovery. The Labour councillors took the campaign to the people through meetings, mass canvassing and leaflets. Other Councils, including Manchester and Sheffield, took the same stance but eventually they did deals with the government.

The result for Liverpool was that the government did offer them more money, which was interpreted as a victory for the city against the government. But the following year another confrontation led to the bankruptcy and disqualification from office of the 47 Labour councillors and the expulsion of both Militant and non-Militant members from the Labour Party.

In 2013 Labour is once again in power in Liverpool and facing a series of harsh cuts to its budget which will once again hit the poor the hardest. But the present administration, like others in Manchester and Sheffield, do not see the 1980s experience as one that should be followed today. As Derek Hatton says:

There are people out there who still take the line that we should do what we did in the 80s, but the danger of that is assuming the conditions are same as in the 80s. The fact is, they are not.

This is an important book not just because of its analysis of the politics of Liverpool but also because it asks questions about the nature of socialist politics . People and history may scorn the role of left wing activists in groups such as Militant but how is it that they spoke to the needs and hearts of working class people in the 1980s? Why is it the Labour Party commands so little respect from working class people? And at a time when the term working class gets thrown around in the media why is it they have so little involvement in left wing organisations?

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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