Liverpool: The City That Fought Back
IT IS now twenty years ago, back in 1983, that
the people of Liverpool elected a Labour council to roll back the
onslaught on their city's working class being perpetrated by the
Thatcher government and the local Liberal/Tory alliance.
Margaret Thatcher's government aimed to
drastically change the balance of forces in British society in
favour of the capitalist class. Apart from attacking the unions, the
Tories wanted to weaken local government which they feared offered
some protection from poverty and the attacks of capitalist
The Tories took away councils' freedom to set
local rates and also reduced government help to councils - step by
step introducing a vice-like centralised grip on their finances,
leading to such measures as rate-capping.
Liverpool's councillors (with supporters of
Militant, the socialist's predecessor, prominent in their
leadership) achieved their aim magnificently. They forced Thatcher
to retreat, to make significant concessions in 1984, thereby
allowing the council to implement measures in favour of the working
This earned the councillors and Liverpool's
working class the undying hatred of the Tories, the capitalist class
and the right-wing of the labour movement. They conspired together
to hound out of office 47 councillors (unfortunately two died in
office) who refused to bend the knee.
In 1985 Neil Kinnock, then the national leader
of the Labour Party, followed this up with the "big lie"
that the councillors intended to make workers redundant. Not one
council worker faced that fate - the same could not be said of
today's right-wing Labour councils!
To answer these slanders - still repeated today
as Harry Smith explains below - and also to celebrate that titanic
struggle, we publish below the views of some of the participants.
(Former city councillor and District Labour Party President.)
THE SHEET anchor for the magnificent stand of
the 47 (originally 49, reduced to 47 by the sad deaths of Pete Lloyd
and Bill Lafferty) was the District Labour Party (DLP). This body
comprised delegates from constituency parties and branches, trade
unions, the youth and women's organisations, community groups, the
Coop, the Labour Group and the Liverpool MPs.
The DLP determined policy which the council was
required to implement. Its decisions were reached after full and
democratic discussion, with the participation of delegates and
At the height of the campaign it was normal for
in excess of 100 delegates to attend. When extended meetings where
held (this is when all party members were invited to attend), some
600 party members would vote on policy, those not delegates were
considered as a consultative vote.
The vibrancy of this body can be judged when
these attendances are compared to the average attendances at City
Party meetings in other major cities - they were usually between 25
The DLP was authorised by the rank and file and
the national executive to interview candidates for the council and,
in concert with the ward organisations, to ensure that elected
councillors remained faithful to the policy on which they were
It is a tribute to the councillors and the DLP
that, in spite of the most appalling campaign of character
assassination against the Labour group, 49 of the 55 councillors
The others (dubbed the 'sensible six' by Kinnock
and the 'scabby six' by the rank and file) after some murky
behind-the-scenes meetings with establishment figures, publicly
condemned the 49.
Such was the DLP's authority, it was the main
target when the right wing launched its witch hunt in 1985. Peter
Kilfoyle, an unknown nonentity, was plucked from obscurity by
Kinnock's acolytes and given dictatorial powers to crush the party.
After two years of sustained expulsions,
suspensions, harassment and threats, the DLP was emasculated. When
even that feeble body was outraged enough to pass a vote of censure
on Kilfoyle, it was closed down completely.
The provision for councillors to be accountable
to the grass roots was abolished, and now there is no rank and file
body with any constitutional power to determine policy.
The Labour Party in Liverpool has disappeared as
a social and political force. Its remnants, as they have been
nationally, are placed at the disposal of big business. In
consequence, the Labour Group has been reduced to a rump with the
lowest turnouts in history in local elections.
The establishment of an alternative mass party
of Labour as advocated by the Socialist Party is essential if we are
to recapture the spirit of the 47 in Liverpool.
(Former councillor for Valley Ward. He took over as deputy
leader when Derek Hatton was expelled.)
I SAW our fight as a struggle against Thatcher's
free-market policies that caused over 100,000 workers to be made
redundant between 1979 and 1983. Youth unemployment in parts of the
city reached 90%.
The ruling Liberal group's misuse of the rate
support grant, and the cuts in housing funds, meant no houses were
built for rent by the Liberal/Tory alliance between 1980 and 1983.
That meant people continued to be trapped in appalling housing
Liverpool had the highest rents outside London
for some of the worst properties, that's why one of our first
measures was to freeze council rents. There was a desperate need for
the City Council to make a stand against the remorseless onslaught
of Thatcherism. The Liverpool 47 did exactly that.
When we left office 31,000 people were employed
by the council compared to the less than 20,000 now after some
fifteen years of Liberal/New Labour control. That bears testimony to
the determination of the 47 to defend jobs and services. And to this
day I believe our stand was correct - I am very proud of it.
(Former councillor for Valley Ward.)
JUST CONTRAST our programme of secure jobs for
local authority workers with some of the best conditions in the
country to the current situation! Thousands of council jobs have
been privatised and workers sacked with impunity.
One private company, Interserve, in spite of
undertakings given to the Council, has served 60 workers with
compulsory redundancy notices with possibly more to follow.
In spite of our record in defending and creating
jobs, right-wing Blairite Transport and General Workers Union
organiser Jack Dromey, in a recent letter to the Interserve
workforce, couldn't resist the customary treacherous right-wing dig
at the 47 referring to the tactic of the 'redundancy notices' sent
out to the workforce.
Let's put the record straight. Not one single
worker was made redundant by the 47. The issuing of these notices
was a tactic that had been discussed with the joint shop stewards
committee and supported as a device to extract funds from the
When the 47 were removed from office under the
Thatcher government, there were 1,000 more employed than before we
took office, and 1,000 jobs were saved that would have been lost
under the Liberal/Tory budget.
(Labour Party ward secretary 1971 - 1986)
AS A local ward secretary I saw how the policies
of the 47 inspired working people and triggered a huge increase in
party membership and activity. Support for the 47 was reflected in a
massive increase in turnouts in local elections from an average of
20% through the previous ten years up to in excess of 50%.
Labour in the period of the 47 recorded the
highest Labour vote in Liverpool history of 100,000 and the highest
voter turnout. Under the stewardship of the right wing, the Labour
Party has now disappeared as a political and social force, the
District Labour Party has been destroyed, and Labour has been
reduced to a rump in the council, with turnouts in local elections
of as low as 11%.
(Former councillor for Kensington ward)
THE 47 councillors created 1,000 jobs, cancelled
another 1,000 job losses inherited from a previous Liberal/Tory
council, and took on 136 apprentices. Under the urban regeneration
strategy we built 5,000 dwellings, more houses than all the other
councils put together.
We built six new sports centres. As a direct
result of the City Council building programme 16,000 jobs were
created in the construction industry. We granted to local authority
workers the 35-hour week, which was taken away by a cabal of
Liberal/Tory and New Labour councils.
I don't recall Neil Kinnock or any of the trade
union leaders condemning these attacks on workers in a major speech.
(RMT - previously the NUR - branch official)
AS a railway workers' rep who recognised the
threats of privatisation to my members' jobs, the 47 had my full
support. They challenged the poisonous notion that there was
"no alternative" to Thatcherism.
They proved that Labour did not have to embrace
capitalist policies to gain support at the ballot box. They showed
that real socialist policies did not scare the voters but actually
inspired loyalty and enthusiasm. What struck my members and me was
the fact that elected politicians were prepared to carry out the
policies they were elected on, and not to abandon them at the first
It's very rare to find such people: politicians
who stick to their promises. If a new party of Labour campaigned on
the policies of the 47 I believe it would act as a real pole of
attraction to thousands of activists looking for an alternative to
the present pro-capitalist parties.
Four years of struggle
5 May - Labour gains control of Liverpool city
council, winning 12 seats.
9 June - Nationally the Tories gain a landslide
victory. In Liverpool Labour wins five of six seats including Terry
Fields winning Tory marginal Broadgreen for the first time.
19 November - The council and its trade union
supporters organised a demonstration of 20,000 from the council and
29 March - budget day. One-day city-wide strike
and march of 50,000 to the Town Hall supporting the proposal to set
a deficit budget backed by a mass movement of trade unions. The
alternative, workers knew, was redundancies and cutbacks.
7 May - Despite Tory threats to suspend
elections and have Liverpool run by commissioners, Labour gains
seven more seats in the council in a 50%+ turnout. This includes
several gains by Militant supporters.
6 July - Tory environment minister Patrick
Jenkin, who had threatened fines unless the council set a budget,
was forced to climb down. At the time of a magnificent strike by the
miners and under intense pressure from Liverpool's mobilised working
class, the Tories conceded a deal worth up to £60 million though
rate rises of 17% were also agreed.
17 November - Tory threats to introduce
rate-capping got a militant response from council unions, encouraged
by the successes of Liverpool. An organisation bringing local shop
stewards together, the London Bridge Committee called a one-day
strike. 100,000 took action - 30,000 protested in London.
7 March - 50,000 march in Liverpool against
rate-capping and government cuts. On the same day, though,
solidarity between different councils resisting the Tories was
broken when Inner London Education Authority councillors set a rate.
30 March - Council workers organise a national
local authorities' combine committee where Liverpool stewards argued
for national industrial action.
14 June - After the collapse of the other
Labour councils' refusal to set a rate (except for Lambeth),
Liverpool sets a 9% rate rise which results in a deficit budget.
September Liverpool's councillors issued 90-day
redundancy notices to the 30,000 strong workforce to gain a
breathing space to build the campaign to defend jobs. This tactic to
gain money from the government was reported by unprincipled
capitalist media as sackings.
8 September - The councillors were surcharged
£106,000 for their delay in setting a rate.
24 September - As the council's cash crisis
deepened, council workers narrowly rejected an all-out strike,
despite majorities of GMB, TGWU and UCATT members. The next day
however almost all the council workforce came out on a 24-hour
strike in support of the council's fight.
1 October - Labour leader Neil Kinnock made his
infamous speech at Labour Party conference, launching a period of
slanderous attacks on fighting councillors.
22 November - Left isolated by other councils'
capitulation, Liverpool councillors were forced to retreat and set a
budget based on a £30 million loan. 27 November. Labour's NEC votes
to set up an inquiry into Liverpool DLP.
Labour nationally expels a series of Liverpool
councillors and Militant supporters. Law Lords reject councillors'
appeal, add extra £242,000 costs on top of the original £106,000
surcharge and dismiss them from office in 1987.
Socialist 20 September 2003