The ghost of Labour’s militant past were conjured up when several figures referenced the Liverpool City Council’s famous defiance towards Thatcher in the 1980s at this week’s party conference in the city. Frances Curran, former MSP and member of Labour’s National Executive local government sub-committee for a time in the 1980s, says the council’s actions were heroic. She argues we shouldn’t feel queasy about commemorating politicians that fight for the working class and that there are plenty of lessons for socialists on both sides of the border…
Liverpool City Council's actions in the 1980s remain a source of debate and conflict. As this week's Labour Party Conference demonstrated, they also continue to be a source of inspiration for some. First, Shadow Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler appeared to endorse this message, much to the ire of the right of her party, when she said simply: “Conference, we are in Liverpool where over 30 years ago the council stood up to Thatcher and said 'better to break the law than break the poor'.”
Then, at a celebration of the struggle of the Liverpool 47 (the 47 Labour Councillors who led the fight) with the unveiling of a plaque, General Secretary of Unite Len McCluskey echoed the very same words and laid down a challenge to Labour councils – we hear plenty of words of protest but what we actually need is resistance. The history of this particular struggle has long been much maligned, denigrated and misunderstood, even on the left.
But while critics threw accusations of infiltration, it must be recognised this colossal moment of defiance was not simply carried by a small raft of councillors but by a mass movement. The 47 Labour Councillors who led the battle always maintained a mass base of support among workers, in the trade unions and at the ballot box. They never lost an election. The truth is that it was the machinery of the state and, specifically, five House of Lords judges, one of them a former fascist parliamentary candidate, that debarred them from office and surcharged them in 1987, not the voters of Liverpool.
Four years earlier in 1983, marching under the 'break the law' slogan and standing on a manifesto of no cuts in jobs and services, Labour took Liverpool City Council from no overall control with a dramatic increase in the Labour vote (from 51,000 to 76,000). Instead of implementing Thatcher’s cuts, the council began to build a mass campaign of struggle, promising to set an illegal budget, meaning refusing to balance the books.
They organised a defiant city to demand the government return £30 million which had been stolen from the council in cuts to government grants. Although not public knowledge at the time, this mobilisation came when Thatcher was secretly being urged by senior Tory ministers to abandon Liverpool to a fate of “managed decline”. It's no wonder that battle lines were drawn: Liverpool would stand up to Thatcher and defend working class Liverpudlians. Trade unions in the city supported the council stand: in February, 1,700 trade union representatives from public and private sector workplaces gathered in St George’s Hall to talk strategy, tactics, support and organising.
On budget day in March 1984, the city witnessed one of the biggest city-wide general strikes in British history. Around 50,000 people took part in a one-day general strike and marched to the Town Hall, with the words of Tony Benn from a few days earlier ringing in their ears: “no gains for working-class people have ever been made without taking risks and going outside the law”. The Labour Councillors proposed an illegal budget, but six renegade Labour councillors would not support it; the Tories and Liberals' proposed cuts budget didn't gain majority support either. The council was in budget limbo.
This was a significant moment as the Tory government was discussing suspending the upcoming council elections in May and sending in troops, removing the councillors from office and appointing a commissioner. I was sitting on the local government sub-committee of the Labour Party National Executive at the time and moved support for the Liverpool stance, which was overwhelmingly backed. It would be another year before Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s treachery against this mass movement.
The miners strike was two weeks old when Liverpool City Council met in March – a full-blown national strike was yet to spread. By May 1984, the miners were in national confrontation with Thatcher and the Tory government. And in the May council elections, Liverpool Labour councillors again romped home, this time with over 90,000 votes across the city. In total, 72% of all council workers supported Labour. Two thousand delegates assembled in June and Deputy Council leader Derek Hatton essentially demanded the following of the Thatcher government: either give us the money or we will go back in and set an illegal budget in July. The government caved and made the concession in July, giving Liverpool the money needed. Their fear of contagion was real.
If you think Jeremy Corbyn receives a hard time in the press, this was nothing to the daily onslaught from local and national media against Liverpool City Council and the people of the city. This was a juggernaut of hostile propaganda and what a Labour government with a socialist programme will undoubtedly face in office.
The following year, as budget day approached, support was even more solid and 50,000 again marched to the town hall. Other Labour councils, for example the Sheffield administration led by David Blunkett and the London administration led by Ken Livingstone, pledged defiance, but this came to nothing as one by one they crumbled. The inverse ethos was adhered to: better to break the poor than break the law. Again Liverpool was left to stand alone.
The struggle continued and councillors enjoyed mass support. But in the end, it wasn't the Tory government that defeated Liverpool but Neil Kinnock and Labour's right or 'soft left', determined to smash radicalism. I know first hand – I was there as we tried to resist the expulsion of the leaders of this movement from the Labour Party. We tried to prevent Kinnock from using the Tory press to condemn them and challenged the closing down of the Labour party branches in Liverpool. This was a city where over 1,000 delegates from local branches would attend district party meetings, which were at the heart of strategy. Kinnock paved the way for the unelected Lords and judges to ban the Liverpool 47 from office and fine them almost £400,000. Most were threatened with losing their homes if they couldn’t pay, and they couldn’t pay. The council workers and the movement set up a check off system for their wages, paying a small amount each month to pay the surcharge, raising over £500,000 in a couple of years. It showed that solidarity and support still existed.
The narrative in the mainstream media for decades was that Liverpool City Council's actions were somehow unrepresentative or exploitative of the city's working class. The truth is they were overwhelmingly supported in a city of rife unemployment and rising poverty, a city the Tories were prepared to abandon.
So it's right the Liverpool 47 are celebrated: they put everything on the line to fight for working class people. These were not career politicians. The houses, sports centres and nurseries they built are all still there as a bricks and mortar testament. They stand as monuments to be learned from on both sides of the border. As I sat at the Liverpool 47 celebration last Saturday, held at the sacked dockers pub, I knew their legacy is to inspire a new generation to pick up that banner and that vital message: “It's better to break the law that break the poor”.