Making of a Liverpool militant
Tony Mulhearn, January 24 1939 - October 7 2019
Tony Mulhearn, a key figure in Liverpool city council’s struggle against the Tories in the 1980s and a leading member of Militant and then the Socialist Party in England and Wales, has died, aged 80. His death gained wide coverage in the Liverpool media, where he was variously described as a “veteran political campaigner” and “a champion of the working class”.1 This local coverage and political reaction reflects the important place that Tony Mulhearn and the 47 Labour councillors - surcharged by the unelected district auditor in the 1980s - continued to hold in the Merseyside labour movement some 30 years later.
The resonance of that struggle and that period in British politics was amply demonstrated by a meeting held in Liverpool on October 13 - originally intended as a book launch for Tony Mulhearn’s autobiography, following his death it became a commemoration of his life and times.2 Speakers included Len McCluskey of Unite, Liverpool Walton Labour MP Dan Carden, Dave Nellist of the SPEW, as well as former Militant comrades and Liverpool councillors, Derek Hatton and Felicity Dowling. In their various ways these speakers attempted to situate Mulhearn’s ‘life and times as a political activist’ in two intersecting frames: one local - the development of a ‘Liverpool militant’ - and the other, the wider currents of the British left since the early 1960s.
The picture of ‘the Liverpool militant’ that emerges is of a working class activist from the Catholic Scotland Road area of the city, who becomes active in the print union, the NGA, and the Labour Party in the early 1960s. In his own accounts, Tony Mulhearn linked his own political development to the nature of the city in which he had been born and in which he grew up.3 The remnants of sectarian Orange and Green politics remained well into the 1960s: Labour did not get a majority of MPs in the city until 1964 and the Conservatives retained something of an Orange base until deindustrialisation and economic decline undermined those pools of support in working class areas.4 Mulhearn’s development as a young union activist and member of the Labour Party mirrored that of thousands of working class people in the 1960s and 1970s. These militants would be the local leaders of industrial struggles within the car factories, the docks, the pits and other key sectors of the economy throughout Britain.
Significantly these struggles against the employers and the government’s anti-union laws also developed into wider battles to transform and democratise the unions themselves. Many activists drew broader political conclusions about the nature of society and the need for radical change. Whilst many would join the ‘official’ Communist Party with its network of industrial militants and well-established position in the trade unions, others like Tony Mulhearn were attracted to the various Trotskyist groups that were developing from the late 1950s. Not long after joining the Labour Party in 1963, Mulhearn became a member of the small Trotskyist group which would become better known by the name of its newspaper, Militant. Along with other young Merseyside activists, such as Terry Harrison, Ted Mooney and Peter Taaffe, Mulhearn was to play a role in developing the Militant Tendency as a current within Labour and the Labour Party Young Socialists in the 1960s and 70s.
The dominant left currents within the Labour movement in this period were typified by the left reformism of Tony Benn and the similar politics of the Tribune group of Labour MPs. Their programme, ‘Labour’s alternative economic strategy’, which was heavily influenced by the ‘official’ Communist Party’s British road to socialism, shaped Labour’s election manifestoes in the early 1980s and reflected the strength of the left in the Constituency Labour Parties and the trade unions. Although critical of what it defined as the ‘left reformism’ of the Labour left, the Militant Tendency’s own policy of “Labour to power on a socialist programme” and “nationalising the top 250 monopolies under workers’ control through an Enabling Act” was equally as reformist as the position of the Tribunites. Militant’s programme simply went further in its shopping list of demands to be achieved through an act of parliament.
However, the growth of Militant did represent a move to the left and showed the depth of opposition to the pro-capitalist policies of previous Labour governments and the desire for radical socialist change amongst working class activists. Whilst the Militant Tendency enjoyed a degree of support within the Labour Party throughout Britain, it was on Merseyside that its strongest base lay and it was here that its political strategy was to receive its greatest test in the 1980s.
Mulhearn was central to the events that unfolded in Liverpool in the 1980s. Although Derek Hatton was a flamboyant target for the tabloids and a convenient hate figure for the Tories, it was the more solid presence of Mulhearn that guided affairs. The key to Militant’s strategy in the city was the District Labour Party (made up of delegates from the city’s CLPs) and the development of a Broad Left, which included wider non-Militant currents. As president of the District Labour Party (DLP), Tony Mulhearn was crucial to the development and implementation of the strategy to confront the Thatcher government’s policy of cuts and attacks on Labour local authorities.
Much of Liverpool council’s achievement in housing, education and employment would have been fairly unremarkable ‘municipal socialism’ in the 1950s and 1960s. But the 1980s were n‑ot the calm days of the post-war boom and for many on the Labour left local government was a new front in the counter-attack against Thatcherism. A series of Labour-controlled local authorities had pledged that they would challenge the Tories, but they fell away one by one, leaving only Liverpool to continue the fight. The core of the Militant strategy on Liverpool city council was initially to defy Tory spending guidelines and pressurise the government to concede further grants to the city to make up the budget shortfall. This worked in 1984 when the environment secretary, Patrick Jenkin, climbed down and gave an additional £20 million to the city’s housing budget.
However, the Tories took a tougher line in 1985, when the council passed a deficit budget and demanded further government aid to make up the shortfall. No concessions were forthcoming: in August the district auditor declared that the city was nearing bankruptcy and would be unable to pay the wages of its staff by the end of the year. An important part of the Militant strategy had been the mobilisation of support from trade unions and working class communities - as a way of both demonstrating the strength of the movement that stood behind the councillors and increasing the pressure on the Tories.
This support was sustained throughout the campaign, but came under considerable strain from the tactics employed by the councillors in the autumn of 1985. In a move that is still hotly debated within the working class movement in the city, the Labour group issued 90-day redundancy notices to the 30,000 workers employed by the council. It was explained that this was a tactic to buy time and space to apply yet more pressure on the Tory government and force it to concede in negotiations with the local authority unions. Mulhearn argued that the notices would be unnecessary: the Tories would give in to mass pressure and the workers would understand that ultimately it was Thatcher’s government that was responsible for the situation. Tony Mulhearn continued to defend this tactic until the end of his life and argued that it could have been successful if other councils had developed similar campaigns.
Where his assessment of that period was undoubtedly correct was in relation to the role of the Labour leadership in sabotaging the struggle in Liverpool and using the confusion sowed by some of the Liverpool Labour group’s tactics to launch a witch-hunt against the Militant Tendency and sections of the wider Labour left. Neil Kinnock’s speech at the 1985 Labour conference, where he attacked the “grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”, was the signal for an all-out attack on Militant, which eventually resulted in the expulsion of Tony Mulhearn and other leading Militant comrades in Liverpool and elsewhere.5
It is natural in obituaries to consider the legacy and impact of political figures. It is perhaps easy to paraphrase Enoch Powell (not a politician one would easily link to Tony Mulhearn!) by saying that all political careers end in failure. In the case of Tony Mulhearn that is wrong on several counts. Whatever the political differences comrades might have had with the Militant Tendency, we recognise that Mulhearn was not a career politician. Unlike the New Labour clones who crept into parliament after Kinnock’s and Blair’s purge of the left from the late 1980s, working class activists like Tony Mulhearn fought to change society, not to further their own careers and feather their nests.
Up until the last months of his life comrade Mulhearn was still an activist, taking part in pickets and demonstrations, speaking at meetings and rallies. In 2018 he spoke at a Labour Against the Witchhunt meeting at Labour Party conference in Liverpool alongside Chris Williamson and Alexei Sayle. As the only national newspaper so far to carry an account of Tony Mulhearn’s life, The Daily Telegraph, put it, whilst he had challenged the Tories in the mid-1980s, he “was more of a headache for Labour”.6
The legacy of the Liverpool council struggle in the 1980s is still hotly contested. As Liverpool, like other local authorities, faces more cuts to its budget in the coming year, many Labour activists are questioning the strategy of the current leadership of mayor Joe Anderson and his policy of managing cuts. Consequently the experience of the 1980s remains a model for some comrades on Merseyside: the politics of Militant continues to retain a certain nostalgic appeal. This mood was certainly evident in the tributes in the media and in the contributions at the launch of Tony Mulhearn’s autobiography.
However, our assessment has to go beyond wistful excursions into the past. It is important for the future of the left within Labour that we really learn from what happened in Liverpool in the 1980s and the subsequent response by the pro-capitalist leadership of the party. Of necessity that must not only pronounce a harsh judgement on the treachery of Labour’s right, but it must also honestly critique the experience, programme and the strategy of the left as well.
T Mulhearn The making of a Liverpool Militant London 2019.↩︎
In many of the tributes paid to Mulhearn in Liverpool itself there were strong elements of ‘Liverpool exceptionalism’. For an analysis of this phenomenon see J Belchem Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool exceptionalism Liverpool 2006.↩︎
P Taaffe and T Mulhearn Liverpool: a city that dared to fight London 2017.↩︎