Illusions of Power part 5: January 1982 to July 1985

Submitted by AWL on 5 November, 2008 - 4:25 Author: Mick O'Sullivan and Martin Thomas

January 1982 to July 1985

The GLC's capitulation over cheap fares in spring 1982 was a watershed. As the Falklands war, and then the Tories' big election victory of May 1983, followed, confrontation became a very remote item on the local government left's agenda.

In May 1982 however, the left scored sizeable victories in the London borough elections. People round Briefing had been following up their 1980-1 campaign to get leftists into GLC seats with a drive to secure left borough councils. They were fairly successful - most so in Islington hailed in Briefing of June 1982 as 'Fortress Islington'.

Islington had previously been the seat of the most hardened old-style right-wing Labour municipal corruption. New applicants to join the Labour Party, were told that it was 'full up'.

Nevertheless, new members did join, and eventually ousted the right wing after a battle through the 1970s. In the process, practically all the left-wing activists in the borough were drawn into the Labour Party. In 1981-2 the majority of the Labour councillors went over to the SDP' giving the borough the first-ever SDP council in Britain.

The Islington Labour Left was by no means just a bunch of resolution passers and committee-room politicians. They campaigned against the SDP council's cuts and, for example, in 1982, for the NHS workers.

The Labour councillors who won a 51-to-1 majority over the SDP in May 1982 were almost all 'new leftists', many of them leading figures in campaigns, trade unions, and tenants' associations in the borough. A good many of them would consider themselves revolutionaries.

The new council started off by repealing the SDP cuts, flying the Red Flag over the Town Hall, and placing a bust of Lenin outside the council chamber. To its eternal credit it took a bold and public position in favour of lesbian and gay rights.


But in the debate on the council manifesto, the 'no rate rise'/confrontation strategy moved by SO supporters had been defeated. The manifesto eventually said (and this is not to caricature it) that Labour would not make cuts, that Labour did not like big rate rises; and if it came to the crunch, well then, there would be a problem, wouldn't there?

In July 1982 a local Labour meeting voted for a 'no rate rise' motion put by an SO supporter. Over the following months Islington SO people struggled hard to build an effective confrontation strategy on the basis of that vote. It was soon clear, however, that most of those who had voted for the motion did so as a gesture, and in reality saw rate rises as inevitable.

In spring 1983 the local Labour Parties voted overwhelmingly for a 29.8% rate rise. It was a "strategy for this year only", explained council leader Margaret Hodge. Next time it might be different.

After the Tories' May '83 victory, however, Islington Labour council retreated into a defensive, cowed posture, with no strategy at all.

Issues like gay rights were played down in favour of concentrating on the council's 'respectable' achievements. In 1984 two women's centres wishing to set up in Islington, and a feminist bookshop wishing to open a cafe, found the council pedantic and obstructive about planning regulations.


That same year, Islington's building works department had to strike to stop the council reverting from a flat-rate pay system already introduced in place of the old bonus system in line with Labour's manifesto. The council said that the workers had not delivered sufficient productivity improvements; Islington had limited resources, and could not afford to spend too much on relatively well paid building workers.

Just a few months later the council sat out a long strike by some of its lowest-paid employees, the nursery workers, who were demanding improved pay and staffing.

At each retreat, some councillors did object. But there was no consistent left wing. By 1984 a brief survey of the controversial issues over two years' life of the council would show only one councillor out of 51 -Pat Longman, an SO supporter - who had been on the left every time.

The council had been an effective school in reformism for the Islington new left. And not only for the councillors. The activity and militancy of the Islington Labour Parties declined drastically. In May 1985 'Fortress Islington' was one of the rate-capped authorities which went back on its promises to struggle and set a legal rate. Elsewhere this retreat could be accomplished only by councillors defying Labour Party mandates and facing stormy demonstrations: In Islington, the dejected, low-key Labour Parties voted to approve the retreat in advance.

The next step forward for the local government left came when the May
1983 elections in Liverpool showed a massive swing to Labour ousting the previous Liberal administration.

Here, unlike anywhere else, the leading role in the local Labour Party and in the council Labour group belonged to an organised Marxist tendency, 'Militant'.

Militant was also strong in the local trade unions, and the leading force in the major City Council manual workers' union, the GMBU.

The Liberals had deliberately run down the council's reserves, and the city's financial situation was dire. The council raised the demand for the return of the ÂŁ120 million taken from them in central government grant since 1979.

A campaign was launched in November 1983, linking this demand with other issues like the NGA dispute.

The council's policy was no cuts - and no rate rises to compensate for government cuts. This helped to galvanise the council joint trade union committee away from looking to rate rises to protect jobs-and the rate rise necessary would be huge anyway.

So the campaign united the Labour Party and trade unions, and reached out into broader sections of the working class.

Individual cases give the flavour of the campaign - like a DLO worker, near retiring age, who had given up union activism many years before out of disillusion with the official leadership, but now became a steward again because he believed that this time the leadership meant business.

I he campaign was by no means entirely Militant's work. A large part was also played by non-Militant leftwingers such as the City Council NALGO leadership and the activists in the local TGWU unemployed branches.

On March 29, budget day, there was a near general strike in Liverpool and 2S,000 marched to the City Hall. The campaign had broken out of the circles of labour movement activists to far wider layers of workers.

Labour put an 'unbalanced' budget. Six Labour right-wingers scabbed and refused to voted for it. Neither Labour's nor any other budget could win a majority. The council found itself unable to set a rate-an unprecedented and unplanned outcome.


The mass campaign continued vigorously up to the May 1984 election, when one-third of the council seats were to be contested. The Labour-affiliated council unions played a direct and active part in turning out a Labour vote, and NALGO turned its 'Our city, our fight' campaign outwards to the community.

On election day there was an exceptionally high turnout, and Labour did well. A surveV by the University of Liverpool showed that 80% of council workers had voted, 75% for Labour. It also showed that they were ready to 'go over the top' with a local general strike and a rent and rates strike.

Simultaneously, the great miners' strike was fundamentally changing the whole spirit of the labour movement. As with the GLC fares issue in early 1982, the moment was exceptionally favourable for a fight.

The government was anxious to avoid any sort of second front alongside the miners. It had told British Rail to give its unions an improved offer, and it went for a compromise in Liverpool.

Militant, as the strongest coherent political force in Liverpool, had a choice: to go for a fight, or to take the best compromise they could get.

Militant's reasoning and motivation was different from the mainstream local government left. Still, its basic ideology biased it towards compromise.

Militant has a very mechanistic version of Marxism, according to which iron laws of history drive the working class ever onwards towards Marxist politics. The job of the organised Marxists (i.e. Militant) in the meantime is to make propaganda (usually of a timeless and general sort) and to build their own following.


Two elements in this outlook incline Militant towards caution in immediate struggles. Victory is inevitable in the long term: so why take risks now? If the situation is favourable now, it will certainly be more favourable in the future. The really big struggles are always 'to come'.

And what about positions, prestige, opportunities to make general propaganda? Militant's ideology tells it not to risk such acquisitions for the sake of 'ephemeral' struggles.

So they decided for compromise.

After the May elections the campaign was scaled down. Labour now had a majority for its unbalanced budget, but made no attempt to put it through the council. Its policy underwent a subtle change, from no rate rises to compensate for government cuts to no massive rate rises.

After long negotiations between the council and the Tories, a deal was finally announced in July: some extra government funding, on various pretexts and a 17% rate rise. Militant hailed this as "a 95% victory". But to a large extent they had only put off the council's financial problems to the next year. And they had missed the chance to open a second front for the miners.

But Liverpool's achievement certainly looked good. It was the first time since 1979 that a Labour council had defied the Tories and come out of it with even limited gains rather than a collapse.

A number of other left council leaders, particularly Ted Knight and Margaret Hodge, latched onto this and proposed refusal to set a rate as a strategy against the 'ratecapping' - legal ceilings on rate levies-due to be enforced by the Tories from April 1985.

Looking at the Liverpool experience, they ignored the mass campaign before May and the miners' strike, and saw only the failure to set a rate and the subsequent negotiations. If all the rate-capped authorities should refuse to set a rate in April 1985, they concluded, then they would be able to bring the government to the negotiating table.

Even better, this was a way of defying the government without the risks of clear-cut illegality and all-out confrontation. Liverpool had not broken the law. Not setting a rate could represent a half-way house between capitulation and a fight. At a certain stage it would lead councils into illegality; but that bridge could be crossed when it was reached.

The option of doing in 1985 what Liverpool had intended to do in 1984, and making an unbalanced budget which would immediately open up confrontation with the government, was not seriously considered by any authority except Hackney.

A Labour local government conference in July 1984 enthusiastically approved the no-rate option, which, it said, should be placed within a "principled framework of non-compliance until the government had restored the rate support grant".

As Hilda Kean reported to Hackney Labour Party: '`There was support shown for the actions of Liverpool council' in particular the work they had taken in building a campaign with the unions. I feel that much of the positive thinking, at the conference was a result of the impact that Liverpool has had on the government; comrades realised that if we as a united labour movement put up a fight against the government's policies then we can win".

And - on the other side of the question - the old rate-rise strategy was out anyway, because it was now illegal.

Council trade unionists who had previously backed rate rises as a way to buy job security became alarmed. Indications were that if the councils complied with rate-capping, then there would be considerable redundancies.

At the end of July the councils issued figures. Islington said it would have to cut 750 staff to comply with the rate-cap; Haringey, 1200; Sheffield " 2500"; ILEA, 5000.


These threats of redundancies became the spur to the formation of the
London-wide shop stewards' committee London Bridge, discussed below.

There was a well-supported one day strike on November 7. In the New
Year, 1985, the campaign continued to build up-though rumours began to filter out that some councils might find ways to make ends meet within the rate-cap, and in February the council leaders quietly decided that they would 'defer' setting a rate which was probably less risky legally than clearly deciding to set no rate.

The argument for this softer line - one that would be employed time
and again - was the need to maintain the unity of the rate-capped councils. If Labour went for a clear-cut line, then some councils would defect.

While Labour Parties, London Bridge, and trade unions elsewhere were 'consulted', it was clear that - for- all the new left's talk of new democratic approaches - the council leaders were in sole control of the campaign. The rank and file were a stage army to be marched on and off by the council leaders -rallied outside the Town Halls on March 7, told to go home when the council leaders decided it was time to set a rate.


However, for the first time outside Liverpool since August 1981, the left councils were conducting a struggle. When Neil Kinnock, at a Labour local government conference in Birmingham at the start of February, called on councils to stay legal and in office at all costs-"better a dented shield than no shield at all"- Ted Knight denounced Kinnock's words as "totally inadequate and out of touch with the rank and file".

On January 19 there was a special London Labour Party conference on rate-capping. (Of the 18 rate-capped authorities, two were the GLC and ILEA, and nine were London boroughs). Hackney argued for unbalanced budgets rather than setting no rate, and was heavily defeated. An amendment calling for recognition for London Bridge appeared to be passed on a show of hands, but the NUPE delegation demanded a card vote and got it defeated.

The leadership was for once moving in the direction of a fight, but the rank and file of the labour movement had no real control over it. When the leadership began to backtrack, we would be helpless.

In contrast to Liverpool in early 1984, the London councils' campaign was geared more to general publicity than to a working-class orientation Their advertising campaign used pictures of two leading Tory 'wets', Francis Pym and Edward Heath, with the heading 'Are the critics of rate-capping leftwing extremists?'

The cross-class approach was borrowed from the GLC's anti-abolition campaign. The councils' effort was always geared to threatening the government with a supposed broad cross-class alliance, rather than with working-class action. It was rather like a first-year kid who is fed up with the fourth-year bully and tries to get bigger children to protect hi-m. The local government heroes got as far as muttering a few insults before turning tail and running home to mum.

The council trade unionists, however, had been running their own campaign, and that was a different matter. Throughout London every council workplace was visited at least once. The unions' message was a different one: 'Support .the councillors while they support us. They may give in, but we can't. Whether against the council or against the government, we must fight to protect our jobs and be ready to strike in support of others'.

On March .7 there was a major turnout in the London boroughs to, support the councils' stand as they voted to defer a rate. Eight London boroughs, plus Thamesdown, Sheffield, Leicester, and non-ratecapped Manchester and Sheffield, voted to defer.

Despite everything, the campaign had gone beyond the activists and mobilised wide layers of the working class community. But the same weekend the campaign started to go downhill.

Unlike the districts and boroughs, the metropolitan counties, the CLC, and ILEA, had a legal obligation to make a rate by March 10.

It looked as if the 'no rate' motion would lose in the GLC because of
Labour right-wingers defying the whip. But then on Friday March I the
GLC Labour group received a legal opinion indicating otherwise.

The GLC Tories could, without risk of penalty, put their own budget which Labour right-wingers would refuse to support, and then abstain on all legal Labour budgets. In that way, a determined core of Labour councillors - even if they were a minority of the full council – could force 'no rate'.

Ken Livingstone responded typically. Formally he argued for the no rate policy. But at the same time he undermined it. He denounced the borough councils for deciding to 'defer' rather than to go clearly into illegality. (He said that he had only just found out about this line, decided some weeks earlier). He stressed the risks in the GLC going illegal, thus lining up moderates to vote for legality. And he produced a scheme for financial juggling to allow a legal rate with no cuts.

The GLC Labour group voted, on Mike Ward's motion, to go for a legal rate. Livingstone voted with the minority, although in fact he had been the main architect of Ward's majority. On March 10, after all sorts of council-chamber chaos a coalition of Tories and Labour right-wingers eventually passed a modified version of Ward's budget, at slightly lower than the maximum legal rate.

ILEA, where Labour, and specifically the left, had a stronger position than on the GLC, had already voted for the maximum legal rate.

The political realities behind all this became clear in the following few weeks. Livingstone publicly dismissed the 'no rate' policy (which several councils were still trying to carry through) as sham heroics; turned on John McDonnell, who had led a GLC minority fighting seriously for no rate, and got him replaced as GLC deputy leader by Ward; and announced his personal break with the hard left and reconciliation with Neil Kinnock.

The weakening of the rate-capped councils' position went hand in hand with a weakening of the miners' strike. If the miners had been able to look forward confidently to a really strong stand by the councils, then surely they would have continued their strike at least a few weeks longer.

But they saw the signals that indicated a large measure of gesture and token in the councils' defiance. So on March 3 they voted to return to work. And that in turn weakened the councils.

One after another, council leaderships found accounting tricks or previously un-noticed reserves to enable them to squeeze through with a legal rate. In Sheffield, Haringey, and Hackney, notably, right-wing and soft-left councillors defied Labour Party decisions to set legal rates. By early June every council had collapsed except Lambeth and Liverpool.

On June 14 Liverpool set an unbalanced budget. On June 27 both Lambeth and Liverpool were served with warnings of surcharge. On July 3 Lambeth -its precarious Labour Left majority destroyed by the resignation of a councillor - set a legal rate.

Liverpool's campaign, up to June 14, had been much more low-key than in 1984. General opinion was that since the City Council had not set its rate until July 1984, it could delay until July in 1985, too, without legal problems. There was no mood of impending confrontation.

The Militant-influenced council leadership had not conducted themselves as if they were preparing for a showdown with the Tories.

In general Militant's local government philosophy has been different from that of the London left, or even of Blunkett in Sheffield.

The mainstream local government left places great emphasis on popular participation, decentralisation, community links and accountability.
As we have seen, much of this rhetoric is just rhetoric, and a perspective which hopes to run experiments in municipal socialism in abstraction from the class struggle cannot hope to make it much more than rhetoric.

Militant, however, does not even have the rhetoric. It runs the council with methods of fairly traditional Labour machine politics, and quite secretively: no-one outside a tiny circle knows much about the council finances.

In London, and to some extent elsewhere, the left councils have put
great emphasis on special schemes for women and blacks. None of that for Militant: the achievements that Liverpool council boasts about are old-style bread-and-butter working class measures, like more houses built and lots of new workers taken on in the parks department.

But more than that: the council has been extremely heavy-handed.
Although it has been modified slightly in recent years, Militant's general line on specially oppressed groups like women and blacks is that they should not concern themselves with their special oppression but instead just merge themselves into the general bread-and-butter working-class struggle.

So when the council appointed a Militant sympathiser, Sampson Bond to its senior race relations job, in preference to other candidates who seemed technically better qualified and more sensitive to specific black concerns, many black groups in Liverpool were outraged. The continuing dispute has put the council at loggerheads not only with the black groups but also with NALGO.

At the same time, heavy-handed tactics by Militant supporters on the
City Council joint shop stewards' committee gave some unions led by the Communist Party an excuse to hive off from the committee.

As a result of its own political decisions therefore Liverpool City
Council came into the financial year 1985-6 with a weaker position than in 1984-5.

In June, the council leadership's initial recommendation was for a
20% rate rise, which might just have allowed Liverpool to scrape through the year legally. The unions rejected that.

But now Liverpool is set for clear confrontation. Quite aside from the question of surcharges, the council will run out of money in the autumn at latest.

Whatever the discontent with Militant's specific policies, there is little doubt that the Liverpool labour movement will rally massively to the council against the Tories when it comes to the crunch. The City Council shop stewards have pledged themselves to strike action.

And even if a fight in 1984 would have been on better ground, Liverpool can win. If the council keeps its nerve, the Tories can defeat it only if they can put in administrators over the council's head and get council employees to work for, and tenants to pay rent to, those administrators.

Edinburgh council is also set for a possible confrontation. As with
Lothian in 1981, it has been instructed by the government to cut spending. (What particularly offends the Tories is the council's rent-freeze policy). If it holds firm, it is likely to suffer not only loss of central government grant, but also court action.

To organise support now for Liverpool and Edinburgh is vital. But to look back at the problems of the last six years is not quibbling or sectarian. If we are to mobilise the labour movement effectively - in support of Liverpool and Edinburgh, or over next year’s rate-cap and abolition of metropolitan authorities – then we must learn the lessons of past failures to mobilise.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.