Dawn Butler Explains It is “better to break the law than break the poor”

The forerunner of the Socialist Party, the Militant, is in the news again.

Dr. Jon Tonge, who undertook his doctoral studies (in the early 1990s) by belittling the Militant’s role in leading the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, published an article in today’s New Statesman titled “Militant was ideologically narrow – but it offered hope to a city in need.”

Tonge states that Militant’s ideological commitment to Marxism meant they were “loathed by other sections of the Left,” most particularly those sections of the Labour Party who would in later years become enamoured by Tony Blair’s conservatism. Amid his snide misrepresentations of the Militant, Tonge couldn’t however gloss over all the facts, noting:

“Militant offered hope to those in need. Hitherto-moribund local Labour parties swelled in numbers. Thousands took to the streets in support of the Militant-controlled council’s resistance to an unsympathetic Conservative central government. Has there ever been any other occasion when 50,000 people marched in support of a local council? Local election turnouts, previously pitiful, soared. Labour’s vote rose by nearly 70 per cent between 1982 and 1984.”

This New Statesman article was written in response to the important speech recently made by Labour’s shadow minister Dawn Butler, who speaking at Labour’s women’s conference in Liverpool, said:

“Conference, we are in Liverpool where over 30 years ago the council stood up to Thatcher and said: ‘better to break the law than break the poor’.”

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So what did the socialist-led Liverpool council accomplish in Liverpool over 30 years ago? Former Liverpool councillor and the then District Labour Party president Tony Mulhearn explains:

“In the two years before the 49 Labour councillors (reduced to 47 by the death of Bill Lafferty and Peter Lloyd) were elected in May 1983, not a single house for rent had been built by the Liberal/Tory alliance which controlled the council. Council rents were the highest in the UK outside London. 5,000 council jobs had vanished. Youth unemployment in some areas of the city was in excess of 50%. The defeated Liberal/Tory alliance had left behind a financial gap of £10 million of unallocated cuts, and £30 million had been slashed from Liverpool’s budget by Tory minister Michael Heseltine. This was the nightmare inherited by the newly elected council in which Militant (predecessor of the Socialist) supporters played a prominent role.”

Instead of passing on further Tory cuts to the people of Liverpool, the 47 councillors (of which a minority were Militant supporters) adopted the slogan “better to break the law than to break the poor.” They then “launched a programme of action that included building houses, creating jobs, expanding services and freezing rents.” This was backed up by a mass campaign of resistance, involving huge anti-austerity protests, which were supported by “public and private sector trade unions, community organisations, youth organisations, party constituencies and party branches”.

This naturally leads many commentators on to the misleading story about taxis scuttling around delivering redundancy notices to council workers. But as Tony Mulhearn and Peter Taaffe recount in their book Liverpool – The City That Dared To Fight.

“While the Liverpool councillors were in power, from 1983-7, no one was made redundant. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Neil Kinnock in the autumn of 1987, when he pushed for 40 real redundancies among staff at the Labour Party’s Walworth headquarters.”

But let’s remember what a Labour council that dared to fight actually achieved during the 1980s: so other than embarrassing the growing ranks of the careerist, distinctly unprincipled elected representatives of the Labour Party, Liverpool councillors managed to…

  • Lead an immensely popular and well-backed battle in 1984 which forced Thatcher’s government into a retreat worth up to £60 million. On the council’s budget day in March 1984 (when a one-day strike took place) 30,000 local authority workers joined a 50,000 strong march in support of the council’s deficit budget.
  • 6,400 jobs were created in the private sector because of the house-building programme, on top of thousands of local authority jobs created and saved. Other results included six new nurseries, and five colleges.
  • Build over 5,000 council houses.
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