I’ve been moved by a few nostalgic events lately. Last year the 30th anniversary of the election of the Liverpool Militant City Council triggered a number of articles on radio, in the press, and in books. And simultaneously the 25 year anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster was marked with some seismic shifts.
The 1980’s were a pivotal decade on Merseyside. I remember watching Northwest Tonight & seeing Derek Hatton, leader of
1983-7 Militant council, giving impassioned speeches in the midst of a national
tsunami of cut backs, job losses and protests. Even in those formative years I
could tell something important was happening; that a city was united in
solidarity & railing against Thatcher & the establishment. This is in
sharp contrast to the current malaise of the left (look no further for an
explanation of the rise in UKIP popularity). Some years later, as though drawn
by a magnet, I moved to Liverpool. I played my part in
Militant Liverpool politics, but by then the party was over. The Berlin Wall
had torn down the belief in a state socialism, a ‘democratic workers’
revolution’ and the stomach had gone for a fight after an impressive record of
solidarity & struggle on Merseyside.
Contrary to the media stereotype, Militant supporters were the most erudite and passionate of people. They didn’t roam around as intimidatory skinheads wearing Doc Martin bovva boots or ‘trot’ out politically correct aphorisms like Wolfie in Citizen Smith. If anything, they were understated. Once whilst we were door knocking, an old comrade asked me to untuck my trousers from inside my boots so as to make the right impression. They educated each other & won by gentle persuasion, and the bare facts of historical materialism. They were based in the working class because they were working class. This distinguished them from Socialist Workers (affectionately known as Swoppies) - mostly middle class ideologically motivated students who were apt to ditch their Trotskyism on the altar of 2.4 kids once they had their 2:1 sociology degrees. .
The Militant lightbulb joke?
Q: How many Swappies does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: None, They SMASH it.
Once I was at a Militant summer camp, to which a number of left groups had been invited to a debate. I was surprised how many far left groups were represented, including the Sparticists League, the Communist Party, and others I had no idea about. Of course the Swappies were there in force. The debate was on the problem of drugs in inner city areas and what was to be done about drug gangs/ stop & search/ social problems of addiction & the law. This was the same year boxer David Ungi had been shot dead in a drugs gang war in Toxteth, which had provoked the Police to run around like headless chickens with guns, clearly caught with their pants down & unable to do a job of policing without the discipline of the gangs. On one occasion we were at a pub in Toxteth and were suddenly interrupted by a unit of armed Police who ran into the pub like a SWAT team screaming all kinds of blue murder, because they had a “report of a disturbance”. They left with their tails (& guns) between their legs.
Anyway I digress! Back to the drugs debate, which was well represented & clearly a matter of pride for the Swappies; they came well prepared & made a good case for legalization of drugs & the importance of education/ libertarian choice. It struck a chord. Then, a Militant comrade got up. He thanked the Socialist Workers for coming to the debate, their input & acknowledged much of their argument but then invited them to “come to
where they can see the crack babies being born; maybe then they can say whether
they agree with legalization of drugs?” He then went on to make a convincing
evidence- based case for decriminalization of drugs, a position which has
caused the current coalition government some embarrassment recently. Apart from
the impassioned & surgically accurate oratory typical of Militant supporters,
it left me with the unequivocal belief that Militant was a root & branch
working class phenomena which was unique amongst the left movement. Liverpool
I was gutted to have missed the Don’t Mention The 47 retrospective in London which took a systematic look at the Militant Liverpool council (blurb & link below) but I will look out for the two books Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge, and Liverpool '81: Remembering the Riots.
Don’t mention the 47 is a documentary that re-opens a crucial chapter in British history. In the years between 1983 and 1987 a group of 47 elected Labour councilors refused to transfer the cuts implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s government onto the
Liverpool community they represented. Instead they
built 5000 houses, created thousands of jobs and set up many vital public
services. How was that possible and why did they end up being surcharged and
expelled from from thier roles? Through a series of interviews with some of the
councillors, a housing worker, photographer and militant activist, some
of those who were closely involved, it begins to assemble an inspiring example
of solidarity and resistance.
By North Utsire