It is over twenty years since the final collapse of the left-wing Liverpool Labour council of 1983-6.
Through that council, the avowedly Marxist “Militant Tendency” had the leadership of a mass workers’ movement which could have shaken or defeated the government. Arguably it marked the highest point ever (so far) of active mass influence for would-be revolutionary Marxists in Britain, higher than anything achieved by the Communist Party when it was a revolutionary party in the 1920s.
Yet the battle ended in fiasco. The importance of learning the lessons is as huge as were the opportunities.
The article reprinted here (with very slight abridgement) was published in Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity) no. 489 of 13 June 1991, when the then still-sizeable remnants of Militant were starting on the turn which would take them from their politics of the 1960s-80s, very “Labourist”, towards the attitude that they (renamed “the Socialist Party”) have today, writing off the Labour Party as fundamentally no different from the Tories.
The Labour Party has, of course, changed a lot since the 1980s. On an objective overview, since the trade unions retain a decisive 50% say at Labour Party conference (should they have the will to insist on it), it still has some of the contradictions of what Lenin called a “bourgeois workers’ party”.
Militant, having bungled the opportunities which decades of slogging away inside the Labour Party eventually gave them, were unable to deal with the backlash which they predictably faced after the bungling. They scarcely resisted (except through the bourgeois courts) the limited expulsions which they faced after 1986, and instead voluntarily quit (long before the decisive changes within Labour) with bluster claiming that they were about to build a “new mass workers’ party” in the “red nineties”. They continue with a diluted version of that perspective today.
The right wing were dominant in Liverpool Labour until well into the 1960s; people like the notorious Bessie and Jack Braddock ruled the roost there, along with a corrupt “Catholic mafia”.
Left-wingers like Eric Heffer were in the minority. Slowly things changed. The bitter old Protestant-Catholic division — the sort of thing they have in Belfast, only not so deeply rooted — receded. Everywhere in Britain labour was militant and on the offensive. The combativity of Liverpool’s dockers was legendary.
Then in 1973 the Liberals gained control of Liverpool City Council and held it for the rest of the decade. The working class began to suffer setbacks and defeats. The Liverpool docks industry declined, so did shipbuilding. Chronic depression laid hold of the city.
It was against this background that Militant slowly grew to dominance over sections of the Liverpool labour movement. A branch of Militant (under different names) had existed in Liverpool since the 1930s. They controlled the Labour Party Young Socialists for 15 or 16 years, with the collusion of the Labour Party bureaucracy. They didn’t rock many boats or challenge the labour movement machine: their goal was to burrow within it and take it over. Their notion of socialism was a cross between Fabianism and bureaucratic Stalinism.
For example, the long-established Liverpool black community has been the subject of institutionalised racism for many decades: Militant never concerned itself with such issues. Nor with the oppression of women. It accommodated to the existing level of ideas of the working class around it. But it grew.
By 1983, when Labour regained control of the council from the Liberals, Militant had a big enough block of councillors to control events, behind a thin facade of “independent left-wingers” like council leader John Hamilton.
The result was a series of disasters for the Liverpool labour movement. Conditions were unfavourable for any left-wing council under great pressure from the Tory government [of 1979-97], and especially so in mass-poverty Liverpool. Conflict with the government was inevitable.
Militant’s representatives began to compensate for all the years of quiet burrowing by an orgy of public boasting and confrontation-rattling.
For a year — from May 1983 to May 1984 — they worked, and worked well, to mobilise the Liverpool working class. Mass demonstrations challenged the Tories. An opinion poll in May 1984 showed that 55% of Labour voters — Labour, with its fighting policy, made big gains in the council elections—were ready to back a local general strike.
And then Militant threw it all away. In the end they merely played the Grand Old Duke of York, marching mass demonstrations up to the top of the hill and then down again. Apart from style—and their strange and incongruous leader Derek Hatton — Militant was little different from any other fake left Labour council.
Or perhaps it was a little more cynical. Despite all the “revolutionary” and “Marxist” bluff and bluster, Militant chose to do a short-term deal with the Tories in mid 1984, refusing to go for confrontation then which would have linked the cause of the Labour far left with the miners then on strike, and could maybe have given a lead to other left councils.
Militant let the Tories — who greatly feared a fighting linking up of other workers with the miners — buy them off, and like the rest of the labour movement left the miners in the lurch. By this blinkered and treacherous parochialism Derek Hatton and his friends —under the daily control of Militant national leaders —bought themselves exactly a year. Then, the miners beaten, the Tories came back to sort them out. And in the wake of the Tories cane Labour Leader No-Guts-Neal Kinnock to complete the rout of Militant.
Despite the craven record, the boasting and the bluster continued. They continue to this day! A book published by Militant after the 1985 fiasco compared the expenence of the Liverpool City Council favourably to the French Revolution of 1789-94!
Yet, the truth is that had Militant deliberately wanted to demoralise and demobilise the Liverpool working class it would not have behaved any differently. The mad saga of the “Marxist” council pretending to sack its own workers as a means of putting pressure on the callous Tories is well enough known by now. The jubilant right wing saw to that.
Yet, though Neil Kinnock, who ratted on both the miners and the local government left, had no right to say it, he told the stark truth when, at Labour Party conference in 1985, he mocked at the “tendency tacticians” and condemned them for sending a fleet of taxis around Liverpool to give council workers their redundancy notices.
Such antics by Militant made the job of no-guts Neil so much easier.
Soon, it turned out that the full truth was even more fantastic than it appeared at the time on the hostile TV screens or in the bourgeois press: none of the grotesque pantomime with redundancy notices was “necessary” even financially: they had already negotiated a big loan with a Swiss bank, and the necessary cuts had been taking place “spontaneously” as council services ran down in Liverpool’s financial crisis.
The council leaders were just bluffing the Tories and — like the bureaucrats in office they were — not bothering at all about the effect on the Liverpool working class, the trade union movement and the Liverpool Labour Party.
That is the essence of it: Militant had burrowed its way into control of part of the old and corrupt Labour Party machine in Liverpool. They acted in the well-established bureaucratic manner with only the addition of “revolutionary” rhetoric, and efforts to build the Militant sect. The labour movement they tried to treat as a mere stage army, demonstration fodder, ballast to put pressure on the government. Such techniques were common for decades to the French and Italian CPs.
Added to that was the antics of Militant’s leader in Liverpool — Hatton — a caricature spiv and bully-boy.
They came into bitter conflict with the Liverpool trade union movement. Worse, they ran a typical white bureaucratic racist vendetta against Liverpool’s oppressed blacks: and when the leaders of the black people protested, Militant ran a vicious campaign throughout the labour movement denouncing them as “pimps” and “gangsters”.
Militant led the Liverpool working class to defeat. The Tories disqualified a large number of councillors. Like jackals, the Kinnockites moved in and started to purge the Liverpool Labour Party. Now in control of the council they cut services and sack workers.
Against this the Militant-led “Broad Left” has organised a breakaway “Real Labour Party” in Liverpool. They won five seats in the council elections, and are now contesting Eric Heffer’s parliamentary seat in Walton.
The story briefly outlined above puts these developments into perspective.
The split in the Liverpool Labour Party is a product of the defeats suffered by the left.
In terms of credibility, the problem for the “Real Labour Party” is that the people at its head, Militant, were the main architects of defeat, the people who made such a ridiculous noisy hash of things when they had control of the council. Around the “Real Labour Party” grouping are also many worker who desperately want some means to fight back against both the Kinnockite Labour council and th~ Tory government.
Nevertheless, they are misled. A comparatively tiny breakaway such as theirs can only result in making the Liverpool Labour Party safe for the Kinnockites. That would be true and it would be a great political error even if it were just a straightforward breakaway by outraged honest Labour Party people.
In fact, the breakaway is dominated by Militant, which has a powerful political machine. This is inevitably going to turn out to be a self-promoting stunt by Militant..
Lesley Mahmood scarcely bothers with the “Broad Left” or “Real Labour Party” name tags: she is, she says publicly, Mifitant’s candidate.
Socialists other than those who support Militant have no reason to support this stunt.
Socialist workers in Liverpool should refuse to accept this split in the labour movement. They should continue to demand that all those expelled in Liverpool be readmitted to the Party, that the structures of the Liverpool Labour Party be reestablished on a democratic basis, and that there should be a new, open and democratic selection meeting to choose a united labour movement candidate in Walton.
The danger of letting in the Liberal Democrats must be a real one. The Liverpool labour movement should demand of Mahmood that she stand down and join the campaign for a new selection meeting.
If on polling day Mahmood and Kilfoyle are both on the ballot paper, then vote for the official Labour candidate.
On Radio Four’s Westminster Hour, a couple of months ago the Militant Tendency was remembered as one of a series of small political parties (Mosely’s British Union of Fascists and the SDP were others). Derek Hatton and Peter Taaffe were interviewed separately. Taaffe said that “the leadership” in London had had no hand in deciding such acts of Hatton and his coterie as making workers redundant. In response, Hatton said that was news to him. The attempt of the leaders of Militant to deny responsibility for the Liverpool fiasco is as understandable as it is difficult to sustain.
Click here for more detail: "Liverpool: what went wrong"