Saturday, 28 April 2012

Learning how to win - like the Liverpool 47

Don’t Mention the 47

Screening (4.00 pm) & Discussion (5.15 - 6.15pm) - Sunday 29th April 2012

Roxy Bar & Screen, Borough High St, SE1 1LB

“Don’t Mention the 47”, made by Arti Dillon and Lisa Lonsdale, is an openly political documentary that re-opens a crucial chapter in Liverpool’s (& Britain's) working class history. Through a series of interviews the film gives voice to some of those who were closely involved, assembling an inspiring example of solidarity and resistance.

I am looking forward to this first screening of 'work-in-progress' of a film that records the achievement of the Liverpool 47 Councillors from 1983-1987. It can help to educate a new generation of trade unionists and anti-cuts campaigners about their struggle – and learn how they achieved their victory.

Significant victories are not easily won against a bosses’ Government. It takes determination, organisation and skilled leadership to defeat the wealthy with all the weapons that they have created to hold us back – their laws, their politicians and their press.

When they face a serious enemy, they use their press - and it really is their press as the revelations around Murdoch have again shown - to vilify leaders who, in Thatcher’s words about Liverpool “do not have enough respect for my office”. 

As Leon Trotsky put it – and he had good reason to know - “When it comes to a threat against their material interests, the educated classes set in motion all the prejudices and confusion which humanity is dragging in its wagon-train behind it”. 

In the case of Liverpool 47 of course, the vilification was led by Kinnock and other supposed Labour leaders. It helped set in train a counter-revolution that turned the Labour Party from an organisation that, with all its weaknesses, could be used to help build the struggles of working-people, into one that is just another party of capitalism.

Today’s Labour leaders, and the hundreds of career politicians and Labour councillors sitting in Town Halls across the country, certainly don’t want communities facing cuts, closures and privatisation of local services to be reminded that there was a Labour Council, yes a Labour Council, that was prepared to declare – like the Poplar councillors before them - that it was ‘better to break the law than break the poor’ – and, with the support of their communities and their workforce, refuse to carry out cuts.

Messrs Milliband and Balls will do nothing of the sort - they won’t even commit to reversing the ConDem cuts if elected. That’s why the NUT Annual Conference unanimously voted to condemn those Labour leaders and recommit to a policy of ‘No Cuts’. It’s also why those of us in the Socialist Party are fighting to build a new workers’ party and, with other socialists and, crucially, with the support of RMT, FBU and leading members of other trade unions, are fighting to win seats for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition on May 3rd. 

For those who don't know the history, the website helps to outline the events of that period - and lists the achievements of that victorious struggle - like the 5000 new homes that were built, the improvements in wages and conditions, the apprenticeships that were created.

NUT members, in the middle of our own battle to defend pensions from Tory cuts, could do well to consider how the Liverpool 47 led the movement to a victory. 

The NUT is a left-led union – certainly no longer a Union that would play a role to deliberately try to undermine the movement – as was regrettably the case with Liverpool NUT’s leadership in the ‘80s. But, regrettably, the NUT - a union with considerable potential power because of the economic effect of closing schools - is not on strike alongside the PCS, UCU, UNITE Health and others on May 10th . Indeed, unless urgent pressure is brought to bear on the NUT Executive majority, it looks like we might not be on strike in June either.

I can see first-hand how the fear of isolation, of attacks from the press, of lack in confidence in our members’ will to struggle – is dragging down Left leaders.

The French revolutionary Babeuf explained that, even for the most well-meaning leader, “it is only too easy to become discouraged by the difficulties and dangers involved in taking a case to the public, and only too tempting to conclude that the enterprise is hopeless before even putting the matter to the test”.

So it could have been with Liverpool. The Liverpool 47 were faced with the choice between making cuts – or carrying out its programme of protecting rents and creating jobs and homes. They could have retreated, like other councils did – including erstwhile Lefts like David Blunkett in Sheffield and, when put to the test, Ken Livingstone too during the 1985 ratecapping battles. But, instead, they were famously, "the city that dared to fight".

But to fight – and to win – requires a strategy. In Liverpool – and in the poll tax battle that also defeated Thatcher – it was the clear analysis of the socialists and marxists around Militant that helped guide the movement to victory. That doesn’t mean that, as in any battle, mistakes weren’t made. The decision by the Labour Group in 1985 to issue redundancy notices to gain the movement some financial breathing space was definitely a mistake, but an honest one, one that was then vilely seized upon by Neil Kinnock to slander the Liverpool 47.

The key strategy – which if there were a council with any kind of fighting leadership should be being followed today – was to identify the shortfall in the budget required to defend jobs and services – and then to launch a mass campaign to demand that money be restored to the city council.

First of all that meant clear and energetic explanation – going out to the workforce and local community to simply spell out the key facts in mass meetings, at trade union branches, on the factory gates, through door to door leafleting and canvassing. 

In Liverpool, the campaign was to explain to workers and the public why the Council needed to set a no-cuts budget and to campaign for the resources that had been stolen from the city to be returned – just as now, public sector unions need to be energetically exposing the blatant and unjustified robbery of our pensions and the attempts to increase pension ages to 68 and more.

It meant organisation - bringing together a campaign committee of public and private-sector trade unionists, tenants groups, women and youth; a vibrant District Labour Party; a thriving Joint Shop Stewards Committee to cut across the dead-hand of the full-time officials; and, of course, the meetings of Militant supporters to hammer out tactics and strategy too.

Above all, it meant having confidence and trust in the determination of working people to struggle – not in cross-class appeals to capitalist politicians and the Bishops that some saw as the way to win. If you can show that you have a serious program of action to meet the aspirations of ordinary working-class and middle-class people – for a decent job on a decent wage, a living pension in retirement, a decent place to live and a good school for your kids – then, if you give a lead, working people will follow and can surprise even the most 'Left’ of leaders with their determination, creativity and energy.

The struggle meant building and mobilising support for mass actions that would display the strength of the movement – the mass demonstration in November 1983, the city-wide strike of March 1984, leading to the further election victory in the 1984 council elections – which all helped force the Tories to concede £60 million - nearly all the money the campaign was seeking from the Government. 

There is no doubt that the Tories settled, in part, to allow them to concentrate on defeating the miners. But that wasn’t down to the Liverpool 47, nor the NUM - it was down to the leaders of the labour and trade union movement who, having refused to back the Liverpool struggle, left the miners isolated and without the solidarity action that could have driven back the Tories.

Once the miners were defeated, Thatcher was even more determined to defeat Liverpool. But the 1984 victory had encouraged 20 or so other Labour Councils to make a stand. Liverpool didn’t want to fight alone – but recognising the weaknesses of many of its allies in the other Labour Councils – was always prepared to do so if it had to. 

The NUT needs to take the same approach – and appeal to the NASUWT to join us in strike action over pensions – but be ready to fight without them if necessary.

Despite Liverpool’s efforts, the united front soon fell apart, as council after council abandoned the 'no rate' tactic. Liverpool was eventually left to fight alone. The unelected District Auditor was then sent in to surcharge councillors – for the terrible crime of not setting a rate for three months!

Everything was thrown at Liverpool to undermine the struggle. In the wake of the Heysel Stadium tragedy in April 1985, Liverpool was attacked as being a city run by bullies and barbarians - but who were the real bullies? Who stood for the widest debate and discussion in communities and trade unions? And who for overriding the democratic decisions of Liverpool voters?

The fact is that Thatcher could never defeat the Liverpool 47 democratically. Liverpool Labour won every election in that period and with some of the highest votes and electoral turnouts ever seen in the city – a testament to how the struggle lifted the level of understanding of workers across Liverpool. Turnouts in local elections were well over 50% - in Liverpool last year the turnout was 36%! 

After Kinnock's treacherous speech condemning Liverpool at the 1985 Labour Party Conference, Denis Healey told Kinnock his speech had won Labour the next general election. What happened? In the 1987 election Kinnock got the second lowest vote for Labour since 1931.

Attacked by the unelected courts - who ordered the Liverpool 47 out of office, by the Labour and trade union leaders, as well as by the Tories, the years from 1985 to 1987 were a period of orderly retreat – but one that still managed to hold out sufficiently to make sure, for example, that the housing programme could be completed. Those gains remain as a testament to the campaign of the Liverpool 47.

Trade unionists and socialists need to learn from history and from the struggles of the past, so as not to get thrown off course by this or that difficulty. In the period that followed in the 1990s and beyond, it seemed to some that capitalism had triumphed. However, it is now surely becoming crystal clear that it was only storing up even greater problems, problems that it is unable to resolve.

Therefore, with the help of this film, we need to remember the struggle of the Liverpool 47 in order to help us win mass struggles again – as part of a struggle for a socialist future. 

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