The situation outlined above, which emerged as a consequence of twentieth century economic decline, was challenging for many areas of Britain, as well as for the newly formed national government. Margaret Thatcher’s first Conservative government was formed in 1979 in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Winter of Discontent’210 with a majority of forty-three, but following the introduction of stringent economic reforms, by 1981 she was registering “the lowest prime ministerial popularity rating since such polls had first been taken.”211 However, the British economy showed signs of recovery by the mid-1980s, and following Britain’s success in the Falklands War (April–June 1982), she won the 1983 general election with a huge majority of 144 seats. General elections are often won, and lost, on matters of the economy, and there had been a significant improvement on what had been the worst economic recession since the 1930s.212 Inflation had dropped from 20– 8%213 and, following her policy of privatisation, Britain’s middle class voters supported Thatcher’s Conservative government emphatically. However, the same period also saw unemployment figures hit three million, another problem not seen since the 1930s,214 and it became clear that the governing Conservative Party were little concerned with the sectors of society that did not comprise their traditional voters.
In 1983 and 1987, the Conservatives made the political weather and could afford to be unconcerned about the areas that seemed always to be shrouded in mist and drizzle.215
This was demonstrated by Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme for council house occupants, a policy which, whilst beneficial to some, would always be impossible for others, particularly the elderly, the unemployed and those with irregular incomes.216
210 The ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978-1979) was a period with a significant number of strikes and industrial action which stemmed from James Callaghan’s Labour government’s attempts to control inflation by restricting increases in public sector pay.
211 Green, E.H.H. (2006), Thatcher, London: Hodder Arnold, pp.3-4; Vinen (2009), Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era, p.104
212 Norpoth, H. (1992), Confidence Regained: Economics, Mrs. Thatcher, and the British Voter, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p.93
Vinen (2009), Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era, p.105 214
Norpoth (1992), Confidence Regained: Economics, Mrs. Thatcher, and the British Voter, p.93 215 Evans, E.J. (2004), Thatcher and Thatcherism, London and New York: Routledge, p.29 216
Further compounding the dissatisfaction of these overlooked sectors of society, Thatcher pursued two key areas: the reduction of the Welfare State, a vital lifeline for those at the bottom of society; and the reduction of the power of Trade Unions. During the course of Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative government introduced five parliamentary acts which altered the role, and thus diminished the power, of Trade Unions,217 and although she had fought a long battle against them, the number of acts that were introduced in little over ten years would suggest that there was no coherent single vision being introduced.218 However, Trade Unions were so affected by Thatcher’s reforms that they have never regained the foothold they had during the 1970s. By contrast, although the Thatcher governments systematically scaled back the boundaries of the Welfare State as part of their stringent economic reforms, they never succeeded in quashing opposition to this “demolition,”219 although the cuts that were made were keenly felt by the poorest in society.
It was on these issues that Thatcher’s relationship with Liverpool was so damaged, and in contrast to the Conservative national government, Liverpool City Council became, from the late 1970s onwards, increasingly influenced by the far left Militant Tendency of the Labour Party. The Militant Tendency, arising from the Militant newspaper which “worked covertly from within the Labour Party,”220 was a Trotskyist group which, from Trade Unionist roots, slowly began to infiltrate Liverpool City Council, and by 1979 seven Militant Councillors had been elected in the city.221
The five Parliamentary Acts were the Employment Act 1980; Employment Act 1982; Trade Union Act 1984; Employment Act 1988; Employment Act 1990
218 Hanson, C.G. (1991), Taming the Trade Unions: A Guide to the Thatcher Government’s Employment Reforms, 1980-90, Basingstoke: Macmillan, p.15
219 Overbeek, H. (1990), Global Capitalism and National Decline: The Thatcher Decade in Perspective, London: Unwin Hyman, p.218
Westlake, M. (2001), Kinnock: The Biography, London: Little, Brown and Company, p.184 221
Atkinson, H. and Wilks-Heeg, S. (2000), Local Government from Thatcher to Blair: The Politics of Creative Autonomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.67; Crick, M. (1986), The March of Militant, London: Faber and Faber, p.222
Fig. 1.2.6 A Militant rally at St George’s Hall, Liverpool, 1984
With Council leader John Hamilton being little more than a figurehead, Deputy Leader Derek Hatton became the de facto leader between 1983 and 1986,222 and during this time Liverpool City Council pursued a number of controversial and confrontational policies, which included “the setting of an illegal budget, and the symbolic sacking of all public employees in Liverpool.”223 At this time, Liverpool had an accumulated deficit of about £90 million,224 and responding to the government’s withdrawal of financial support, Liverpool City Council threatened to bankrupt the city and, thus, attempted to blackmail the government into providing more money.225 The actions of the Militant Tendency in Liverpool was reviled nationally, within its own party and, crucially, by the Trade Unions that had been an early support, with Labour leader Neil Kinnock eventually expelling those known to be involved with the Militant Tendency in 1986.226 This action was considered to be “Neil Kinnock’s Falklands,”227 comparing the potential impact on his popularity to the aftermath of the Falklands War on Margaret Thatcher’s performance at the polls. For the city, however, the damage was significant, and its isolation from the country’s political core was more pronounced.228
222 Williams, R.J. (2004), The Anxious City: English Urbanism in the Late Twentieth Century, London and New York: Routledge, p.108
223 ibid., p.110
224 Crick (1984), Militant, p.161 225
Parkinson (1988), “Liverpool’s Fiscal Crisis: An Anatomy of Failure,” p.115 226
See Liverpool Black Caucus 1986; Lane 1987; Westlake 2001 227 Crick (1986), The March of Militant, p.293