This is an account of a short period (1984 – 1997) in the history of Manchester City Council, when a group of radical socialists attempted to change the nature of local government at the same time as dealing with a sequence of massive budget cuts imposed by successive Tory governments. The story is told by an insider with privileged access to written records and recollections from other people around at the time. It is not a political analysis or an attempt to persuade anyone of the correctness of any particular course of action. It is simply a description of what happened, aiming to give the reasons for certain actions, and to offer some reflections, with the benefit of hindsight. In the light of the current (2011) Coalition Government-imposed cuts on local councils, the lessons learned then may be of some use today.
The year 1984 has a particular significance for different groups of people interested in politics. For Conservatives, it is the year of the Brighton bombing – when Irish Nationalists detonated a bomb in the hotel in which the Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) and Conservative party Ministers and activists were staying for their annual conference. For socialists it is the year of the national miners’ strike led by Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers. For those with literary interests it signifies the book by George Orwell with that title. But for Labour Party activists and council employees in Manchester it has another significance – it was the year that saw the culmination of a struggle between the left and right-wings of the Party, when the left-wing took over the administration of the Council and began their ‘revolution’.
The current status of Manchester as Britain’s 2nd or 3rd most important city is often attributed to the business-friendly and ‘can do’ approach of the City Council. The Council is praised for being willing to form partnerships with anyone and ‘make things happen’, and its ‘loony left’ phase in the mid-eighties is dismissed as an aberration. But, in my view, without this ‘revolution’ brought about by those iconoclastic ‘loony’ left-wingers in the 1980s, the renaissance of the 1990s couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have happened.
This is the story of that ‘revolution’ – seen by some as a bold attempt to create a beacon of socialism in Manchester, despite all the political and legislative attacks and budget controls imposed by a hostile Conservative government. The left-wing Labour Group, that formed the Council administration in 1984, did manage to implement a number of socialist policies, some of which are still in place today and, in the case of the Equal Opportunities policies and provision for children under five, have been a model for other public and private organisations.
The left-wing of the Labour Party in Manchester (as elsewhere in the country) had grown in size between the years of 1974 and 1984 and their members stood for election to the Council in increasing numbers (on a platform of opposition to cuts in services) until they had enough to form a majority administration. Prior to 1984, Labour right-wingers (so-called ‘moderates’) had formed the administration of the Council. They believed the Left’s radical programme to be hopelessly idealistic and unachievable, and some were openly hostile to elements of it and, even after the Left had gained the majority and begun to implement their programme, continued to be hostile towards (and voted against) parts of it.
The Tories’ 3rd General Election victory in June 1987 halted, but didn’t completely destroy, the implementation of the programme. But, the necessity of making £110 million worth of budget cuts and looming legislation on Poll Tax and Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT), led to splits within the Left and a group of between 10 and 14 ‘rebels’ forming a separate faction (in 1988) on the Council. For a time they held ‘the balance of power’ between the left and right-wings of the Labour Party. The remaining left-wingers then formed an alliance with the right-wingers in order to marginalise the rebels and in doing so, compromised on some of the radical policies being pursued.
The years between 1987 and 1992 were very fraught and unpleasant. In addition to the pressure to keep council services running in the face of harsh Government onslaughts and almost universal public animosity towards the Poll Tax, there were personal attacks and confrontations between people who had been comrades and friends for years. These years also saw the formation of partnerships between the Labour administration and capitalist property developers that led to many major building developments in the city and the drive to make Manchester a ‘world-class’ city.
After the 4th General Election victory for the Tories in 1992, the Labour administration in Manchester was resigned to working to a different agenda and to co-operating more with the Government rather than campaigning against it. But, there was increasing disquiet about the style of leadership adopted by Graham Stringer (Leader of the Council from 1984) and the amount of perceived compromise with property developers. Efforts to create a more democratic and socialist style of delivery of local government services eventually led to a change of leader in May 1996, with Richard Leese being elected after Graham Stringer had been selected for a Parliamentary seat.
Then, just one month later, in June 1996, an IRA bomb exploded in the city centre. Although this devastated the centre of the city, and injured many people (whilst miraculously not killing anyone) it actually provided an unprecedented opportunity to redevelop the city centre. The partnerships with the private sector were developed further and even better relationships with the Tory Government were forged. With the election of a Labour Government in 1997, there was hope of a partnership that would see more progress made in delivering radical policies at local level.
The driving force for the majority of the individuals involved in all these political battles to change the local bureaucracy and implement radical policies, was, and is, the wish to make life better for ordinary working people, and, in addition to the time and effort put into these battles and into improving the administrative processes of the Council, local councillors also had to put in hours of service to the constituents in their local wards – running advice bureaux, attending residents’ groups meetings and trying to improve the delivery of public services in their local areas. These hours of public service by local councillors, not just in Manchester, is a constant feature of local government, but is very rarely acknowledged (or even noticed) by the general public or the press.
Even though I was one of those people, with personal experience of many of the events described, this is an incomplete account, since I was not present at all meetings, nor privy to the thoughts of everyone involved at the time, and some of the key players have chosen not to contribute their reflections and others cannot recollect events that happened more than 20 years ago. Perhaps after reading this, others will be inspired to add to what is here, so that a more complete account will eventually be recorded.
Kath Fry, April 2011
This text has had some very minor typographic changes.