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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 government policies.

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 class.

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.

Tony Mulhearn:

(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 organisations.

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 and 30.

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 elected.

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 remained resolute.

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.

Paul Astbury:

(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 conditions.

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.

Harry Smith:

(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 Thatcher government.

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.

John Marston:

(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%.

Alan Fogg:

(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.

Dave Evans:

(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 obstacle.

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 other workplaces.


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.

From The Socialist 20 September 2003



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