Bill Carmichael: Labour must remember Liverpool’s painful lessons on the far-left

Labour should heed the lessons of the 1980s when they arrive in Liverpool, says Bill Carmichael.
Labour should heed the lessons of the 1980s when they arrive in Liverpool, says Bill Carmichael.
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Given the Labour Party’s takeover by the far left, there is something perfectly apt about its annual conference kicking off this week at the Pier Head in Liverpool, the spiritual home of the entryist group Militant Tendency.

Back in the seventies and eighties I witnessed first hand as Militant ruthlessly seized control of the Liverpool Labour Party – a move that ended in unmitigated disaster for the ordinary people of the city, largely because of Militant’s stunning incompetence when they got into power.

Today the far left has gone one better and has seized control of Labour nationally, with Jeremy Corbyn, one of Militant’s stalwart defenders 30-odd years ago, now leading the party. Some parallels between then and now are uncanny. The aggression, factionalism and sheer nastiness of Militant are mirrored perfectly in today’s Labour party, where anyone who expresses the mildest doubts about the Corbyn project is subject to a heap of vile abuse, often misogynist and racist in character.

Back then in my local Labour club the old guard – mainly trade unionists and councillors of many years standing – were initially delighted by the sudden flush of members from the Labour Party Young Socialists, many of them students from affluent backgrounds. But soon the self-described Trotskyists began seizing control of elected offices and the mood very quickly turned ugly. I remember one meeting where a young radical demanded that the government be overthrown and the Prime Minister deposed. “There’s two problems with that,” the chairman said wearily, “first of all it is a Labour government and second the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) is our MP!”

Eventually the old guard were either purged or simply gave up. Who wants to work eight hours down on the docks and then spend their evenings being screamed at by a load of privileged youngsters? Even anti-Semitism, the “socialism of fools” that has infected the modern Labour party from top to bottom, was present back then, although, I think, in a milder form. I can remember dark conspiracies being voiced about the “Zionist” influence on the government wielded by Joseph Kagan, the Yorkshire industrialist and close Wilson confidant.

Another characteristic being mirrored today is the relentless push leftwards in the search for ideological purity. One faction would seize control, only to be denounced by another faction for not being left-wing enough, who in turn would be denounced by a third faction because they weren’t left-wing enough either.

Think of Monty Python’s depiction of the bitter squabbling between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front for Judea and you get the picture. Eventually the increasingly tiny factions – who all hate each other far more than the Tories – disappear up their own fundament. Which is essentially what happened in Liverpool.

Tony Benn, another defender of Militant, was nicknamed “Kerensky” on Merseyside, after Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Menshevik faction that was eventually overthrown by the more radical Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia. I suspect some on the left see Corbyn as another Kerensky who will eventually be replaced by their own version of Vladimir Lenin – the even more hard line Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. No doubt he’ll then be denounced as not left wing enough and the purges will begin again.

It is worth remembering what happened in Liverpool after Militant seized control. As invariably happens whenever socialism is tried anywhere in the world it resulted in total calamity that hurt the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

The Labour controlled council refused to set a legal budget and instead spent money recklessly running up a terrifying level of debt. Eventually the council simply ran out of cash and was forced to issue redundancy notices to 30,000 workers. These events bring to mind the comment by Margaret Thatcher: “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” But even the then national party leader, Neil Kinnock, described what happened in Liverpool as “grotesque chaos”.

So as Labour gathers in Liverpool it is worth remembering the terrible damage the hard left inflicted on the working people of that city. And heaven help us if we ever decide to give Corbyn’s Labour the chance to do to Britain what Militant Tendency did to Liverpool.