A courageous leader of the Liverpool working-class movement and a lifelong member of Militant and the Socialist Party
By Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary
Tony Mulhearn was a titan, a courageous leader of the working-class movement in Liverpool and Merseyside, as well as a life-long proud member of Militant, now the Socialist Party. His death at the age of 80 leaves a big gap for Socialist Party members in Liverpool and elsewhere. We will miss his steadfastness in the cause of socialism.
Much has been written about the Liverpool struggle but most of this in the past was superficial and facile in character. Only in our account of the Liverpool struggle and the lessons for the Labour movement (Liverpool: A city that dared to fight) was a proper record published of this epic struggle.
Tony has added to this through his recently published autobiography, ‘The Making Of A Liverpool Militant’. He played a central role, particularly as the president of the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP), in coordinating the battle which defeated the ‘Iron Lady’ herself, Margaret Thatcher.
How did Militant supporters like Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton and hundreds of others come to wield such influence in Liverpool? Even the serious strategists of capital were at a loss to understand how the mass movement took shape, and moreover one whose leadership had the strategy and tactics able to defeat, on behalf of the working class, the capitalist enemy.
The possessing classes attempted with all the enormous means at their disposal in the media to heap abuse against the mass movement and particularly against leaders like Tony, and Militant supporters generally, who were in the vanguard of the struggle. This was done in order to deflect attention from the real colossal achievements in housing, health, education as well as in the heightened political awareness of the working class of Liverpool.
They were answered and defeated again and again because of the deep roots and mass support that had been built up through incredible mass campaigns. These went into every section of the working class throughout Liverpool and Merseyside.
Lenny McCluskey, leader of Unite the union, recently wrote about the struggle in Liverpool:
“It is little wonder that the Militant Tendency received the reception that they did in Liverpool. Their reception on the doorstep never matched Neil Kinnock’s lies. Many working people supported them because they were fed with cut after cut imposed by central government. The people of Liverpool wanted someone to stand up and fight on their behalf and during that period an enormous amount was done, including the building of beautiful, brick-built, semi-detached council homes with front and back gardens. To many in the city it is still remembered as the time when Labour defiantly stood for the communities it was meant to represent” [‘In Defence of Liverpool’, Tribune Autumn 2019].
Tony played a key role, along with others, in helping to create this mass movement and leading it to victory over the Thatcher government. He spoke to 20-30,000 at the end of mass demonstrations and rallies at the Pier Head in Liverpool. He was president of the DLP for many years. Attendances at the monthly meetings climbed to 700, the biggest of any section of the Merseyside labour movement and anywhere else in the Labour Party throughout Britain.
The steadfast approach of those like Tony – not just Militant supporters, but a broader layer of politically developed workers he helped to educate – pushed the Labour Party in the city towards the left. This culminated in the great triumph of the May 1983 council elections in Liverpool. In a brilliant victory, Labour gained 12 seats, 10 from the Liberals and one from the SDP. Not a single Labour seat was lost and even the Tory leader lost his seat to Labour.
This was in a city dominated by the Tories until 1964! Labour’s vote increased by an astonishing 40% – 22,000 extra votes. In addition to this, a month later Militant supporter Terry Fields was elected as a Labour MP in the Broad Green constituency, with a general swing towards Labour throughout the city. This was in contrast to what happened in the rest of the country, as Thatcher and the Tories won by a landslide.
After its outstanding victory in May 1983, the new Labour council, with a majority of only three, was faced with a simple choice: obtain significant financial concessions from the Tory government or abandon the programme upon which it was elected. This meant that the campaign to win increased resources from the Tories began immediately. The mass campaign was organised, with Tony Mulhearn, Terry Fields, Derek Hatton and many others as the driving force.
The leadership of the Labour Party meanwhile were taking fright at what was unfolding in the city. They could comfortably coexist with Labour councils that were carrying out Tory cuts. No Labour leader condemned Newcastle City Council, which had cut 1,300 jobs from a workforce of 18,000.
But if there were any doubts about the mood that was developing in Liverpool these were soon dispelled by the turnout on 19 November 1983. In bitterly cold weather, but with a carnival-like atmosphere, more than 20,000 workers marched through the city streets in a solid working-class demonstration. This was seen as just a springboard for an even wider and greater mobilisation of the working-class population of Liverpool behind their council.
Tony Mulhearn was in the vanguard of this movement. He pointed out the stand of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders workers in 1971 who forced a Tory government into a U-turn. He said that the Liverpool labour movement intended to get the same result – big concessions from the government – which was duly achieved. Tony warned the Tories that the Liverpool labour movement would never be bought off, that the city still faced appalling problems and would not be satisfied until the Tory government was removed from office and the capitalist system destroyed.
Both he and Derek Hatton got a tremendous reception, especially when they said that even the victory gained at that stage was temporary so long as capitalism continued to exist.
The vote for Labour’s budget – which included the concessions from the government – was carried by 57 votes to 38 and resulted in wild celebrations with a standing ovation for the councillors from the public gallery. In appreciation of Militant’s role in the struggle, the Labour councillors carried an advert printed in our paper: “Fraternal greetings and thanks to the Militant newspaper and its supporters for the outstanding help and assistance given to our campaign to defend jobs in Liverpool.” We also celebrated with a Militant rally of 500 people in the city.
Tony was also an intelligent and astute leader of trade unionists, an implacable opponent of the bosses, determined to defend all workers’ living standards, particularly opposing right-wing trade union leaders. He is perhaps best known as a mass leader of Militant, speaking to tens of thousands at mass demos, as well as for his leadership of the Liverpool District Labour Party.
The right wing of the Labour Party considered the DLP, which implacably opposed them and their programme of council cuts, to be a small “unrepresentative caucus”! Like other supporters of Militant, Tony was hounded and eventually expelled from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock and his right-wing cronies for the ‘crime’ of standing up for and defending the marvellous Liverpool working class.
Without Tony and many other working-class heroes within the ranks of Militant and in the broad labour movement, the colossal achievements of the Liverpool City Council – of a mass council house building programme, new schools and parks, etc. – would not have been possible.
Tony Mulhearn’s achievements – as one of the immortal 47 councillors, who stood firm against Thatcher and the right-wing Labour sell outs, like Neil Kinnock – would not have been possible without mass support from the working class, endorsed in every election while they were in power.
Like generations of workers before him, Tony was vilified and attacked by the bosses and their representatives, victimised and forced at one time to hunt for any kind of job to keep the wolf from the door, for standing up for his class.
This only acted to deepen and consolidate the respect and love that Tony generated, not just in his steadfast family, but in the ranks of Militant and among working people in general.
He remained firm to the end in his support for the Socialist Party, and for socialism in Britain and around the world.