Liverpool: A Radical City?

by Ian Gwinn

A new project exploring Liverpool's radical heritage offers a window onto stories that inspire hope and should galvanise action

First published: 20 June, 2011 | Category: Activism, History

As part of Liverpool’s ‘2020 Health and Wellbeing’ campaign, a council-led initiative that aims to improve health and well-being in the region, 2011 has been given over to a series of events to mark a century of radicalism in the city. ‘Liverpool, City of Radicals’ joins individuals, schools and community organisations together with local cultural institutions in a programme of talks, debates, film showings, art and photography exhibitions, and other activities to celebrate the city’s radical heritage. Not only does it turn to the past, however, but the project also aims - in the words of the organisers – to “articulate Liverpool’s current position and consider a radical future.” Such an initiative appears timely. In the face of the unprecedented speed and scale of Tory (sorry, ‘coalition’) spending cuts, a revival of a radical, dissenting tradition might well be instructive for thinking about how we might go about organising resistance to these measures.

When it comes to seeking out an alternative past, Liverpool has a long history of defiance and non-conformity. Indeed, its history is often told in ways that set it apart from the main narrative of modern British history. Various reasons have been put forward to explain this ‘difference’ – a city on edge of the nation; a colonial port with a cosmopolitan complexion; immigration, particularly from Ireland; a Northern city based on commerce and mercantilism, rather than industry. As a consequence of these peculiar historical and geographical features, Liverpool has followed a separate path of development – economically, politically and culturally – to other urban centres. This can be seen in the precipitous decline of the city’s economic fortunes during the twentieth century, from being the ‘second city of Empire’ and a bustling centre of commerce and trade, to becoming a symbol for the social ills and problems associated with post-industrial Britain. We can see this too in local politics, where the advancement of the Labour Party was held back by sectarian divisions (it was not until 1955 that Labour first gained control of the council) and trade union organisation was slow to gain traction in the face of an independent Liverpudlian rank-and-file. These conditions have helped to foster a distinctive cultural imagery of the place and its inhabitants, one that has been created by ‘Scousers’ themselves as a response to decline, as well as by popular representations by outsiders.

The centenary of Liverpool’s radicalism begins, of course, in the tumultuous year of 1911, a year that saw the general transport strike, which brought the city to a standstill and, according to some historians, the country to the brink of revolution. During the long period of industrial unrest lasting until the First World War, Liverpool became known as something of a hotbed of militant trade unionism. The syndicalist ideas of Tom Mann gained a measure of popularity here. In 1911, after a wave of strike action by dockers, seamen, and railway workers, 80,000 people gathered outside St. George’s Hall on 13th August, in an unprecedented display of class solidarity. It became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ when police, troops and workers engaged in length street fighting with serious injuries sustained on both sides. A general strike of all transport workers was held in the following days, which also saw a Navy battle cruiser sent down the Mersey. The episode resulted in the extraction of substantial concessions from employers and the increased unionisation of a largely casualised labour force.

In the postwar period, industrial action and militancy remained a regular feature of Liverpool life. From the national dock strikes of 1967 and 1972, to the “Right to Work” marches of the 1970s and the 1981 “People’s March for Jobs”, which set off from Liverpool before ending in London, Liverpudlians have been at the forefront of protecting pay and conditions, and challenging government policy. The most notable dispute of recent years was the dockers’ strike of the mid-1990s, which was sparked by the sacking of 500 workers for their involvement in a dispute over the casualisation of labour. Showing tremendous courage and resilience, the dockers carried the fight against the Mersey Dock & Harbour Company for over two years, receiving widespread support from the local community and fellow workers, though it proved ultimately unsuccessful. It was through such struggles and the national prominence of Scouse voices in the trade union movement (e.g. Jack Jones, former General Secretary of the TGWU) that Liverpool acquired a reputation for having a militant workforce and where many of the cultural traits often attributed to the Scouse character – truculence, defiance and collective solidarity – were reinforced.

The declining social and economic fortunes of the city have also left their imprint on the people’s outlook. The fabled Scouse wit, made famous by Liverpool-born comics like Arthur Askey, Tommy Handley, and later Jimmy Tarbuck, has been frequently drawn against a background of social depravation (Askey famously quipped that “you’ve got to be a comic to live in Liverpool”). If a stoical sense of humour has been part of the Liverpudlian psyche, then so too has a sense of mawkish nostalgia, a self-pitying isolationism that has been epitomised in the archetype of the ‘whinging scouser’. When things began to bite in the 1980s, this cultural epithet was used to demonise the working-class of the city and to explain away its economic distress and social misery. Stereotyping served as a convenient way to side-step a deeper discussion of factors that had contributed to Liverpool’s plight, such as the structural problems of the local economy, the forces wreaked by the global economy, and changing national economic priorities.

The ‘eighties’ are remembered as an era of misery and despair; it was a period when both employment and the population were falling (23 and 12% respectively). Yet it was also a time of radical aspiration and collective defiance. In marked contrast to the rest of the country, the voters of Liverpool elected a left-wing council, which launched headlong into a confrontation with the Thatcher government over budget restrictions. They forced significant concessions from the government which meant extra funding for housing provision. The tenure of the Militant-led Labour council (1983-1985) was a symbolic one. On the one hand, it was excoriated for being obstinate, rebellious, and for failing to understand the new economic realities of modern Britain; on the other, it captured the sense of injustice and spirit of resistance of the Liverpudlian public, winning a series of elections despite hostile media coverage. The 1980s also showed the efficacy of grassroots and community action in defying the diktats of local and central government. One example of this came in 1982, when members of the community of Liverpool’s Croxteth neighbourhood carried out a series of acts of civil disobedience in order to prevent the closing of the local comprehensive school. Ironically, it had been a Liberal-led council with Tory backing who voted closure through. On the eve of closure, local residents and teachers occupied the school and ran it for a year before the re-election of a Labour council, who reversed the previous decision and kept ‘Croxy Comp’ open.

Since the 1980s, Liverpool has shed its image as a problem city, undergoing a revival of economic fortunes, evident in a programme of city centre regeneration and cultural renaissance, which saw Liverpool crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Under a Liberal Democrat-led council, a policy of partnership governance and urban enterprise has attracted increased investment into the leisure, financial, tourist, and culture industries. Employment has risen by 12%. However, the benefits of such developments are questionable, concentrated as they have been on the city centre. There remain many outlying areas of depravation and high unemployment that have seen little of the fruits of regeneration. Now, in light of global recession caused by the banking crisis and the coalition’s programme of cuts, this model of economic and urban renewal is fast unravelling.

In this new era of austerity, radical ideas and activity are finding fertile ground. We have witnessed the student protests over the increase in tuition fees and anti-cuts demonstrations, notably the turnout of half-a-million people on 26th March, which show that there is a groundswell of opposition to government plans. Yet for resistance to be ultimately effective, we need to build solidarity across different employment sectors and communities, nourished by an alternative vision of the present and past. No traditional organs of the left, neither the Trade Unions nor the Labour Party, have managed to articulate such a vision behind which opposition can be galvanised. It is here, then, that a rediscovery and revitalisation of the history of radicalism can play a vital role. The ability to challenge the current state of affairs resides in an understanding that things have not always been the way they are and could be otherwise. History can show us something else is possible, that changes can take place. We can see fragments of this in Liverpool’s past, in its dissenting culture and nonconformist spirit, but most of all the examples of collective action by ordinary people and workers. They have not always been victorious. Nonetheless, they attest to the ability of local communities to organise and to fight for justice and local services. In today’s struggle against government cuts and the wider forces of global capital, recounting such episodes in new and imaginative ways has the potential to deepen a nascent radical popular consciousness and serve as a basis for political action in the present. With this in mind, ‘Liverpool, City of Radicals’ may not be merely a one-off nostalgic remembrance of past events, but in its revival of forgotten histories of popular protest and grassroots resistance might yet inspire a much broader effort to radically recast the meaning of the present and future in more progressive and emancipatory ways.

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