MILITANT VERSUS THE PEOPLE
Stephen Fay on how Trotskyite-inspired
policies of Liverpool City Council stopped a co-operative housing scheme
THERE ARE still jobs for the boys in Liverpool, despite an unemployment rate of 20 per cent. The Director of Security is a former night-club bouncer who lives down the street from Derek Hatton, the conspi- cuous deputy leader of Liverpool Council. The new Principal Race Relations Adviser Is a man called Sam Bond, whose previous experience of local government was as a building surveyor for Brent Council in London. Bond's qualification for his post is that he shares the Trotskyite politics of Hatton and his fellow members of the Militant Tendency, who wield power beyond their numbers on the Council. Eight of the 57 Labour members are Trotskyites, but they alreacly control in- fluential departments such as the Central Support Unit.
There are, however, definitely no jobs for the boys who run the Labour Party in the Vauxhall ward. Of the six members of the executive of this local Labour Party, four are unemployed. Of the eight dele- gates from Vauxhall to the district Labour Patty, I was told that only one had a job. Traditionally, a party machine like Labour's in Liverpool would find some sort of work for such faithful supporters. But the Vauxhall ward is a problem. A major- ity of its members stubbornly refuse to conform to the Marxist concept of demo- cratic centralism. Their particular heresy is to question whether the Militants and left-wingers who run the district Labour Party and dictate policy on the Council, really know what is best for the people of Vauxhall.
Community politics is anathema to the Militant Tendency. The 70,000 petitions against the reorganisation of Liverpool's comprehensive schools received no atten- tion at all, not even a token debate on the Council. The termination of parental choice and the end of single sex education was a decision democratically arrived at, after all, by the district Labour Party. The house strategy — familiarly known as 'the total housing plan' — was arrived at in the same unchallengeable manner. Party poli- cy is to build two-storey houses with two or three bedrooms for families who will be told where to live and what colour the front door will be. If existing houses are of three or more storeys, their roofs are taken off and brought down to the prescribed height. (Unlike the Peoples' Republics in London, there is nO sheltered housing for homosex- uals, and no positive discrimination for blacks, because, to the Trotskyites, Liver- pool's working class in indivisible.) The arbitrary nature of the housing policy is what gave rise to the Vauxhall heresy, an account of which is instructive because it shows how British Trotskyites behave when they win power.
The most recent meeting of the Vauxhall Labour Party closed to Trotskyite cries of 'Fascists', 'Gangsters', 'Stalinists'. Vaux- hall was a ward the Trots once controlled; only two years ago they replaced one of the three right-wing councillors with their own left-winger, Paul Luckock, and they ex- pected to snap up the other two seats before long. But within a year they lost control, when a 100 or so local residents applied for party membership. Most of these new members live in Burlington Street and Bond Street off the Vauxhall Road, descendants of refugees from the Irish famine. Their community has re- mained close-knit, focused on the parish church of Our Lady of Reconciliation. They live in cramped flats in deteriorating four-storey tenements that were declared unfit for habitation in 1978.
At the time there was regular work in the docks, at the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery across Vauxhall Road, or at Brit- ish American Tobacco nearby, but dock- work declined steadily, and in 1981 Tate and Lyle announced the closure of the refinery. It was demolished, and since there was little likelihood of any industrial- ist developing the site, the local people conceived the idea that it should be used for their own new housing, built by a co-operative of the type popular under the Liberal administration of Sir Trevor Jones that ran Liverpool in the early 1980s. To develop housing there would prevent the parishioners being scattered throughout the city, as had happened in St Brigid's parish next door when the new Mersey Tunnel was built.
Visitors, observing the bleak landscape of a deprived inner city, might not under- stand why they wanted to stay there, but the residents declared: 'There's not much to look at, but we like it here'. Later they compared themselves to a mining com- munity fighting for the right to stay together, an analogy that enraged Scargill's supporters on the Left. With the help of the priest, the residents formed the Eldo- nian Community Association (the church is in Eldon Street), and began to develop a plan for a housing co-operative. English Industrial Estates, the government land agency that controls the site, was sym- pathetic. So was the Housing Corporation in London that finances housing develop- ment of this kind. And they remained interested even thought the Community Association had to explain, towards the end of last year, that of the 145 families that were to be rehoused, only 25 were unaffected by unemployment.
The real bad news was the Labour Party's City election victory in 1983. The chairman of the Eldonian Community Association, a stocky boss-figure named Tony McGann, recalls that the first act of the new City administration was 'to kick the co-ops in the teeth'. They announced they would retain the plans, but that the development would become council not co-op housing, and out of the tenants' control. 'It was devastating at the time,' says McGann.
But they did not allow their application for funds from the Housing Corporation to lapse, and the Association took on and took over the ward party. 'If we were going to be dragged into politics, we were going to do it the proper way,' says McGann.
The tactics were, of course, a replica of those used successfully by Militant, and within a year an entire slate of Eldonians had been elected to the ward executive. A putsch by the Militants earlier this year designed to unseat one of the two remain- ing right-wing councillors was detected and frustrated. In February, the Housing Cor- poration announced that it would finance the construction of the houses, and English Estates would help prepare the site. The total cost would be £6.5 million. It looked as though the Eldonians had trounced the Trots.
But having established its authority in Liverpool, the Left does not surrender it easily. They might no longer control the cash that would finance the new houses, but construction could not begin until outline planning permission had been granted. The case was considered on 25 March, when the City Planning Committee heard a great deal about 'offensive trades' in Carruthers Street, near the planned houses. These trades are scrap-metal deal- ing, manufacturing sausage skins, or grease and tallow. The planning officer argued that these factories were incompatible with housing. The Council would have to purch- ase the factories compulsorily and relocate them. The cost would be considerable; the offensive traders did not want to move. Application refused, by six votes to three. Next business.
The mortification of the Eldonians was compounded by the sight of new council houses being built on the other side of Burlington Street, not far from the offen- sive trades, which they believe to be no more than a pretext for their refusal. They do not doubt that the real reason has nothing to do with sausage skins or grease and tallow. 'It's war,' says McGann, sounding extravagant; but one of the left- wing councillors, having insisted that his observation should be off-the-record, assured me that there would never be any houses on the Tate and Lyle site. 'It's an argument about power,' he said. What he meant was that left-wing councils could not be dictated to by residents' groups, whose project could not be reconciled with the strategy of the 'total housing plan'.
Paul Luckock, one of the three Vauxhall councillors — the left-wing one — is quite unmoved by the chagrin of his consti- tuents. He is bearded, in his late twenties, and comes from Margate. The Eldonians, he explains, are 'pawns of vested interests', by which he means the Catholic Church. After 30 years of inaction, Luckock con- tinues, the left-wing Council has turned round the City's housing in just two years. He accuses the Government of political duplicity: of granting £6.5 million to the Eldonians while cutting the capital avail- able to the City's housing programme. He is probably right: one of the Labour Party's achievements is to have made Liverpool fair game.
So what does Luckock propose for the site? Industry, he replies. But industry is not disposed to invest in Merseyside. True enough, says Luckock, but he is philos- phical about it: they will have to wait until there is state direction of private capital. It might be a long wait, though it will be sustained by a very specific vision of Britain's industrial future. Each left-wing councillor I spoke to offered the same analysis of Liverpool's prospects: there are no new jobs in traditional manufacturing industries, so the future lies with government-financed services like the National Health, which has an immense appetite for kidney dialysis machines; though if making kidney machines is to solve the unemployment problem in Liver- pool, we shall need to have one each. Liverpool's Lefties are unapologetic about the rout of community politics, and suggest that their behaviour should be a model for Labour nationally. The theorist of Liverpool's municipal socialism is Tony Byrne, the chairman of the Finance Com- mittee and convenor of the District Labour Party's Housing Committee. Byrne is bald- ing and bearded, and wears a pink and grey track suit in his office in the municipal building and in the council chamber in the Town Hall, where he stands listening attentively while Derek Hatton — the only councillor whose influence rivals Byrne's — preens himself. (Hatton, who can, in the memorable Texan phrase, 'sit and strut at the same time', prefers double-breasted pin-stripped suits in light grey, and silk ties, paid for out of the £13,000 he receives annually as a part-time employee of a neighbouring Labour council and his ex- penses, which reached a British record last year, at £8,413.) Byrne is a splendid financier; he sold off mortgages on council houses purchased by tenants to a' consortium led by the French bank Paribas, a deal that enables him to spend money on new council housing faster than the Environment Department has decreed. (Liverpool's Tories don't say much about, this in public, but privately they rather admire Bryne's ingenious method of enlarging the capital budget.) Byrne took time off from raising money recently to comment on a Labour Party consultative document on housing policy. His principal objective was to expose housing co-operatives as apostasy. He wrote:
The attitude toward the allocation of council housing which has been argued by many of the co-op supporters should give rise to concern in a socialist party: 'Why should we not decide who lives next door to us?' This attitude in housing has never been healthy and has usually been reactionary. The issues at stake are the public control of housing, the defence of direct labour, and the preserva- tion of a collective housing service for future generations.
Co-ops, he insists, are a conspiracy to undermine council housing, mounted by the Tory Party nationally, aided by the Alliance locally. I suggested that their policy had been successful because voters seemed to like it. 'Co-ops are supported by Mrs Thatcher, Patrick Jenkin and Prince Charles,' he replied, 'And there's not a lot they do that's in the interests of the working class.' So much for the dialectic.
The interests of the Liverpool working class are defined by the district Labour Party, a body reverentially described by Tony Byrne as 'the most accountable party in the country'. But, as the residents of Vauxhall have learned, that sentence is incomplete. The district Labour Party is the most accountable in the country. . . to the local trade unions and the Militant Tendency. It is also the most doctrinaire; quite possibly the most patronising; cer- tainly the most provocative.
Unable to distinguish between the ill- equipped, under-employed Catholic Irish of Vauxhall and a relentless bureaucracy in Whitehall, the district Labour Party has decided to take on the Conservative Gov- ernment too. In this fight any casualties will be drawn from the same pool — the people of Liverpool — though the numbers might be much larger. Local government finance is an arcane business, but what has happened in the last month is that the Liverpool Council deliberately set a rate after the legal deadline for doing so, thus robbing the Council of revenue from in- terest on its income from the rates. This breach of law can be penalised by a surcharge of individual ' councillors, who can also be disqualified from holding office.
The prompt response of the Liverpool- Left is to call an immediate all-out council strike in the event of 'an attack'. (Unable to wait, the dustmen are quarrelling about bonuses, and the city is already littered with black plastic bags of Liverpool rub- bish.) Labour politicians in Liverpool are a talkative crowd, but it is impossible to get any one of them to explain how a strike by council workers is going to hurt Mrs Thatcher. (The Tories now hold just one parliamentary seat in the whole of Merseyside.) Should the Militants achieve martyrdom and be thrown out of office, Liverpool would be run by a government-appointed commissioner. It's a funny thing, but this unidentifiable civil servant might look more kindly on the aspirations of the badly-housed residents of the Vauxhall ward. This would not be an advertisement for democracy, but nor is democratic cen- tralism.