Interview with Tony Mulhearn

Slashing public services: do councillors have ‘no choice’? Campaigns against the Tory/Liberal government’s cuts have wide support. But many councillors say that they are, in principle, opposed to cutting public services but have “no choice” but to implement cuts. From 1983 to 1987 the Liverpool Labour council, led by supporters of Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist Party), refused to make cuts or increase local rates to compensate for Tory cuts. Instead they led a mass movement to win more money from Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. Bob Severn recently spoke to Tony Mulhearn, who was a councillor and Liverpool District Labour Party’s president at the time.

How was extra funding won by the 1983-87 Liverpool Labour council?
We drew up a set of vital immediate needs for the city and identified the deficit which had been caused by massive Tory cuts in the Liverpool budget. We then launched a campaign to claw that back from central government. It wasn’t just a question of requesting it in a nice way but of making demands and then backing it up by a campaign of mass activity involving the trade union movement, community groups, women’s organisations, the youth movement. Trade unionists played a key role in that campaign which reached out to the broader mass of the Liverpool working class. This placed pressure on the Tory government to make those concessions.

Could you give examples of the demands made?
We had the slogan of no rate [the predecessor of the poll tax and council tax] or rent increases to compensate for the Tory cuts. That then left a massive £30 million gap between income and expenditure. So our demand, which was extremely reasonable, was £30 million back of the £300 million that the Thatcher government had cut from the city’s budget since taking power in 1979. That was the essence of the campaign.

How much money was won back and what difference did this make to the people of Liverpool?
There was a return to the city of something like £60 million between 1984 and 1985. It allowed us to continue our political programme of building houses, creating 2,000 jobs and creating apprenticeships. We developed social services, introduced new nursery schools, built a park, built six new sports centres – concrete examples of what can be achieved if councillors make a stand and back that stand up with a mass mobilisation of the working class.

What is your advice to councillors and councils today who say they don’t want to impose cuts but have no choice?

I see, day after day, leaders of councils – so-called Labour councils – for instance in Liverpool, saying ‘we have no choice but to implement these cuts’.

I go to a gym in the Knowsley area. I went there one Sunday and the first thing that hit me was a notice which said as from the end of July, due to government cuts, free swimming for young people up to the age of 16 and senior citizens will be stopped and they will have to pay £2.24 per session.

That is an abomination. Many young people will just not go, senior citizens will not go because they can’t afford the extra £10-£12 a week. That is a major step backwards.

Now that council has a choice. They could have continued to pay, to continue to provide those free facilities, and campaigned against those government cuts. Similarly there was a council in the North West which is actually closing down a swimming centre and depriving kids of these facilities, saying they have ‘no choice’.

There’s always a choice. You either resist and say you are not doing it and back it up with a mass campaign, or you lamely carry it out with the apology that goes with it. I believe that all council leaders have the responsibility to defend the people that elected them.

Where should funding to prevent cuts come from?
Watch the so called ‘flagship’ programmes like Newsnight and News at Ten, and the observers and academics saying that we have this massive budget deficit, and the only way to fill it is cut, cut, cut. What is happening is a gigantic con trick which is being perpetrated on the people of this country.
There is very little mention of the massive handouts that were given to the banks. £1.1 trillion was made available to the banks. If the tax-payer got back just £150 billion from that £1.1 trillion there’s your deficit dealt with in one fell swoop.

On the other hand the government are closing down tax offices and sacking tax revenue collectors when there’s something like £50 billion lost through all kinds of tax avoidance schemes. The government are allowing that to happen whilst they prattle on about how the only way they can solve this is by cutting back on the living standards of the working class.
This should be totally rejected, and the demand made – the ultimate demand is to establish a socialist society – but a transitional demand would be that they get the money back off the banks, collect the outstanding tax from the super-rich tax dodgers.

Do you think its possible for a council today to win the public support involving not just votes but demonstrations and industrial action like the 1983-87 Liverpool Labour council?

If you demonstrate in action and translate the language of socialism into the language of housing, the language of jobs, the language of social services, the language of freezing council rents, the language of restraining rates increases, into the language of developing social services, people will understand then what exactly you mean as a politician.

Politics now is a dirty word. The sole role of the main political parties now is to confuse, to obfuscate, is to lower the consciousness of the mass of the people of this country and to kid them that there is no alternative to a programme of cuts.

What is required is an organisation that is capable of articulating the alternative. Even on a capitalist basis, important concessions can be won in the short term. We must demand that the real culprits pay for this crisis.

In the pages of the press, even sections of the capitalist class are exclaiming absolute outrage at the role of the banks. Barclays made £11.6 billion last year and they set aside over £2 billion for bonus payments. This is in the middle of a wage freeze.

It’s outrageous and if you pose an alternative to the mass of the population, as we did in Liverpool, in a clear fashion, a campaign to get the cash back from the fat cats then you would receive an enormous response. We demonstrated that.

If that means demonstrations and strikes, and I think ultimately it will do, then I think that is the way the labour movement should organise itself; with a clear programme of industrial action, of strike action, to force the Tories back, and in fact raise the question of an alternative party that is capable of carrying through these policies.

The Liverpool Labour councillors were banned from office and surcharged by the district auditor. Wouldn’t any councillors who refused to implement cuts face a similar fate?

We’ve got to draw lessons from history and draw on the positive features, but also examine the reasons why ultimately the Liverpool city council was defeated. The reason for that was the isolation of the council.

The major councils who started the campaign with us, backed down one by one and in fact implemented the cuts. Councils led by people like Ken Livingstone, David Blunkett, [Graham] Stringer in Manchester, the leader of the Newcastle city council. All of these entered the campaign opposing Tory cuts but succumbed one by one to the pressure. Most of those leaders ended up as MPs or in the House of Lords.

It was clear that once Liverpool was isolated the Tories, in conjunction with [then Labour Party leader Neil] Kinnock, gave the green light to the district auditor to attack Liverpool. It was the biggest demonstration of the dismissal of the democratic process, the removal of 47 councillors from office and surcharging them on the basis of a complete fabrication. It was actually a frame up.

We were accused of losing the city council £106,000 but that in fact was not the case. The Liverpool city council never lost a penny as a result of our actions. It was the actions of the Tories who deprived Liverpool because we set our rate late. There was nothing legally binding us to set it in May. They withheld funding that should have been given to Liverpool, put in the bank to generate interest to the tune of £106,000.

After being in Liverpool for three months, the only thing the district auditor could grasp at was this phoney notion of £106,000 loss of interest. That demonstrated they were prepared to use any device, any measure, to remove us from office, clearly with the collaboration of right-wing trade union leaders and people like Kinnock, and of course the Tory Party themselves.

There’s no question in my mind that if three, four, five or six of the major authorities would’ve stood firm, Thatcher would’ve been compelled to retreat, as she did in relation to the poll tax.

What happened to us in Liverpool shouldn’t be reasons for not struggling in the future, for not struggling at the present time and preparing ourselves in an even broader way, involving the mass of the trade union movement and the mass of the working class, and ensuring that no individual council is picked off.

So if some local authorities refused to implement cuts do you think that could have a national impact on the Con-Dem government?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that such a move and such a campaign which had broad support would compel to Tories to retreat. It’s not the first time we’ve heard about ‘there is no alternative’ because that was Thatcher’s mantra.

Clegg and Cameron say they’re in this mess as a result of the spendthrift policies of New Labour. But under New Labour there was the greatest bonanza for the bankers in history with the lowest form of regulation, supported by the Tories and Liberals.

All this needs placing firmly on the agenda in front of the working class so they understand the process that is going on.

I’m convinced that if the leadership is given from the top, and the issues were clearly explained, there would be an immediate response by the working class in opposition to these attacks. Unions like the PCS, the RMT, can give the lead and galvanise action by other unions. I think that’s what we’ve got to concentrate on and point to Liverpool’s history to show what can be achieved by a single council in a very short space of time.

Achievements of the 1983-87 Liverpool Labour council include:
– 6,300 families rehoused from tenements, flats and maisonettes.
– 4,800 houses and bungalows built.
– 7,400 houses and flats improved.
– 600 houses/bungalows created by ‘top-downing’ 1,315 walk-up flats.
– 25 new housing action areas developed.
– Six new nursery classes built and open.
– 17 community comprehensive schools established following massive re-organisation.
– £10 million spent on school improvements.
– Five new sports centres, one with a leisure pool attached, built and open.
– 2,000 additional jobs provided for in the Liverpool city council budget.
– 10,000 people per year employed on the council’s capital programme.
– Three new parks built.
– Rents frozen for five years.

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