Manchester’s Labour Party from 1964 to 1984

This chapter details the intricacies of the ‘broad church’ of politics on the Left – the left-wing and right-wing of the Labour Party, the Hard Left and the Soft Left, and how the policies changed as a new wave of younger socialists gradually took over the balance of power in Manchester City Council. The Left gained a majority within the Labour Group, but not in the Council, leading to a situation where the right-wing of the Labour Group could vote with the Opposition to block policies and recommendations agreed at the City Party.
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The Change of Composition During the 1960s
The Labour Party in Manchester in the early 1960s was fairly typical of the rest of the country in that it consisted of a mix of members considering themselves to be on the left or the right-wings of the party – a so-called ‘broad church’ – with differences of view being tolerated and even respected.

This mutual tolerance changed around 1964 and the National Executive Committee of the Party expelled the members of the Socialist Labour League and others. Over the following few years many left-wingers left the party, because of policies being pursued by the Labour governments of 1964 and 1966 led by Harold Wilson, and put their efforts into making the trade unions more political. Party membership dwindled and although the Trotskyite Militant Tendency’s supporters were committed to joining the Labour Party as so-called ‘entryists’, left-wingers formed only a minority of the membership. In 1964, there were 66 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) in the country with memberships of over 2,000 people, whereas by 1970, only 22 CLPs were this size. Many local branches had closed and union leaders were threatening to disaffiliate from the party.

This was despite the fact that in the late 1960s there was an increase in political activity among young people across Europe. Young adults who had benefited from the expansion in education were becoming increasingly active in voluntary and community groups, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s and the gay liberation movements. The Young Socialist movement (which was a separate organisation from the Labour Party in those days) was also growing and was heavily influenced (if not dominated) by the Militant Tendency.

1967 Tories Control Manchester City Council
The unpopularity of Wilson’s government led to Labour losing control of Manchester City Council in 1967 – the first (and only) time the Council had been controlled by the Tories. The Tories also won the general election in June 1970, with Ted Heath becoming prime minister, but his government was as unpopular as Wilson’s and many of the young politically-active adults began to join the Labour Party. They believed that joining the mainstream left-wing political party offered a more effective means of achieving change than the many smaller left organizations or single issue groups. Because of the previous decline in membership, these new members had an immediate impact on the political character of the Party.

In Manchester, Labour had already won back some seats from the Tories in May 1970 – one of which was Chorlton-on-Medlock, won by the 23 year old Bill Egerton, who was later to become Leader of the Council. Bill was regarded as a rebel because he asked questions of council officers and kicked against the controlling hierarchy. This is ironic, given that he, in his turn, was later to be regarded as reactionary and right-wing by the new councillors on the Left. He decided that the best way to change things was by working with the old guard, rather than by challenging them. The town clerk at the time was Sir George Ogden – a very dominant man, according to Bill, in total control of everything.

1971 Swing Back to Labour
The 1971 local elections were the best for Labour since the immediate post-war period. In Manchester, all the councillors were up for election at the same time following a change in boundaries and a reduction in the number of wards from 39 to 33. Labour won 81 of the 99 seats. There were still aldermen on the Council at the time, municipal ‘elder statesmen’ elected by councillors rather than popular vote. One of them was Bob Thomas (see chapter 3), who became Council Leader.

Bob Thomas was an ex-miner and trade union official and had previously led the Council from 1957 to 1961. According to Bill Egerton, he ruled the Labour group and the Council with ‘an iron fist’. Bill Egerton considered Bob Thomas to be one of the best leaders the Council has had – a great orator who could ‘wipe the floor’ with the opposition in debate. But Bob Thomas stood down as Leader in May 1972 and Joe Dean was then elected as Leader.

Among the influx of new councillors in 1971 were Sid Silverman and Colin Brierley (who became close to Bill Egerton) and Bill Risby.

Local Government Reorganisation 1974
Local government in England and Wales was due to be re-organised in April 1974, creating new metropolitan county councils. One of these was Greater Manchester County Council, which covered ten[1] metropolitan districts (including Manchester). The first election for this new tier of local government took place in April 1973, in order to form a ‘shadow’ authority with responsibility for appointing senior officers, leasing premises, and putting structures in place, before taking direct responsibility for the services to be transferred in April 1974. At these elections, Labour took control with 69 seats against 23 Conservative, 13 Liberal and 1 Independent. Bob Thomas was one of the Labour County Councillors elected. Bill Egerton thinks Bob made the decision to stand for the County Council because he had neglected to attend ward Labour Party meetings during his years as an Alderman and knew that Party members would be unlikely therefore to select him for a City Council seat.

This local government reorganisation removed many of the district councils’ responsibilities, with the metropolitan counties taking responsibility for the Police, Transport, the Fire Service and Waste Disposal[2] and new Health Authorities taking responsibility for health.

The City Council’s ruling Labour Group reorganised all the committees in the light of the removal of so many of its responsibilities. Welfare Services (elderly people) and the Children’s Committees were incorporated within a new Social Services Committee – colloquially referred to as the ‘hearts and flowers’ committee, although it had some tough responsibilities in relation to visiting children’s homes, such as Mobberley, which was like a mini-Borstal. Environmental Health was incorporated within the Housing Committee, making Housing one of the ‘big three’ committees, together with Education and Social Services.

The creation of the new Greater Manchester County Council was accompanied by ward boundary changes in the 10 districts, so all seats were elected afresh in May 1973. From then on, in three of every four years, one third of the seats were to be subject to election, with councillors serving a four-year term of office. The County Council election was to take place in each fourth year.

The national Labour Party created new District Labour Parties to mirror the boundaries of the district councils. These were responsible for selecting councillors and determining the policies to be pursued when Labour was in control. In Manchester, the district party was, and still is, called the ‘City Party’ and was made up of delegates from each of the five Manchester Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and delegates from the affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

Despite having imposed a 28% rate rise in 1972, Labour managed to keep control of Manchester City Council in the May 1973 elections with 59 seats to the Tories’ 40. This swing away from Labour in Manchester in 1973 was not mirrored in London, since the Greater London Council (GLC) (which had been formed in the 1960s) swung from Tory to Labour that year.

Manchester City Labour Party in the 1970s
In the early 1970s there were a number of very active women in some of CLPs, although this wasn’t typical of the whole city. These women were getting more militant and wanted more representation on the council. Val Stevens, later to be the Council Deputy Leader, had joined the party in 1970 and was active in the Chorlton ward. Kath Robinson (later to be a deputy leader and Lord Mayor), who worked in the voluntary sector, also joined in 1970 and immediately became the secretary of Longsight ward. All the Longsight branch officers at that time were women, which was very unusual[3].

In 1971, Labour won all three seats in Longsight for the first time, including the first Asian councillor in the city, Phil Naqui. In 1973, though, they lost two of the seats back to the Tories – Naqui (who had defected to the Tories) and Bruce Anderson, a gay left-winger, who was actually the hardest working of the three.

There were also a number of active women in the Wythenshawe CLP, some of whom were key members of the Manchester Women’s Council[4], which operated citywide as a separate organisation from the Labour Party.

In late 1973, I moved from Bolton to Manchester with my two children (aged 8 and 6), and, together with my partner at the time, Jean Walker. He and I joined the Labour Party (Moss Side branch). I had been active in the Women’s Liberation movement in Bolton from 1971 to 1973 while studying for a degree as a mature student, but concluded that the only way to make real progress on equality for women was via a mainstream political party – the Labour Party being the only possible option. Another young couple, Alan and Margaret Manning, who were supporters of the Militant Tendency, had recently joined, and around 1975, the four of us took over the running of the Moss Side branch from the predominantly elderly and, to us, ‘reactionary’ branch officers. We were also elected as delegates to the Moss Side CLP.

Nationally, the years from 1970 to 1974 saw increasing trade union militancy with union activists also getting involved in campaigns unrelated to the workplace, such as the anti-racist, environmental and tenants’ movements. The 1974 miners’ strike, supported by other trade unions, was strong enough to threaten the then Tory government led by Ted Heath.

Heath called a snap election in February 1974, seeking a mandate for tough action against the National Union of Miners, whose members had voted for an all-out strike. The election resulted in no overall majority, with Labour winning the largest number of seats. Heath was unable to form a coalition with the Liberals, and so resigned, leaving Harold Wilson to form a minority Labour government until a further election on 10 October gave Labour a four-seat majority. Within six months of taking office, the Labour government was demanding large cuts in local government expenditure, resulting in deep unrest within the Labour Party at local level.

In the summer of 1974, Pat Karney, later to be secretary of the Labour group, returned home to Manchester after three years at the London School of Economics, started work as a community worker in Salford and joined the Labour Party. At the meetings of Central Manchester CLP, he met Graham Stringer (later to be Council Leader), who had grown up in Beswick and also just returned home from Sheffield University. At that time, Eddy Newman (later to be MEP for Greater Manchester) was living in Cheetham, also in Central CLP, having moved from Liverpool. A member of the Young Socialists (which was dominated by the Militant Tendency), he teamed up with Pat and Graham. They were all disillusioned with the Labour government, and particularly dissatisfied with their MP, Harold Lever[5], and the party organisation in Central CLP, which was a moribund inner-city constituency.

In the May 1975 Manchester council elections, Labour did even worse than it had in 1973, ending up with only 54 seats to the Tories’ 45, reflecting, once again, the unpopularity of the Labour government. Norman Morris was elected as Labour Council Leader, taking over from Joe Dean[6], who had been elected to parliament in 1974 to represent Leeds West.

In a by-election later that year, Frances Done (later Chair of the Finance Committee) was elected to represent Baguley ward in Wythenshawe. Frances’ father was the MP Ted Bishop; she had come from Plymouth to study at Manchester University. After graduating, she worked as an accountant for the Housing Corporation, married Roger Done (Secretary of the City Party for many years) and moved to Wythenshawe.

After Harold Wilson retired in 1976 and James Callaghan was elected in his place, the Left became even more vociferous in its opposition to the policies being pursued by Labour in government. Callaghan and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, were thought to have sold out to international capitalism by taking a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to Tony Benn[7], the IMF “ordered a government full of social democrats to abandon even social democracy”. Anthony Crosland had put forward a social democratic option, but, again according to Benn, “Crosland’s revisionism (that had been preached by Gaitskill) was killed by the IMF. They forced a choice between a socialist solution and a social democratic defeat, but there was no cabinet majority for socialism.” Crosland himself opposed the IMF proposals as he contended that the economic situation was not as dire as painted by the IMF, but he was unable to convince enough of his cabinet colleagues.

In the 1976 local elections, Labour’s majority in Manchester went down again to 53 seats to the Tories’ 46 and in the 1977 Greater Manchester County Council elections Labour fared disastrously, winning only 23 seats to the Tories’ 82.

In the Manchester Central CLP, the conflict between the Left and Right was reaching a new peak. Eddy Newman believes that these battles were more polarised in Central CLP than elsewhere in the city. The secretary, Joe Ogden (councillor for Harpurhey ward), had held his position for 27 years and the chair, Ernie Crank (councillor for Miles Platting), for 25 years. According to Pat Karney, the MP Harold Lever didn’t attend CLP meetings and only occasionally visited Manchester, staying at the Midland Hotel when he did so. Gerald Kaufman, MP for Manchester Gorton, tells a story of Lever going to see Harold Wilson about an issue that would affect ‘his constituents’ and Wilson dismissing him with the withering put-down that “the nearest you’ve ever been to your constituents is Knutsford Golf Club”.

At the Central CLP AGM in 1977, Graham Stringer, Pat Done and Eddy Newman had enough support to take over the running of the CLP. Pat was elected as secretary, Graham as chair and Eddy as treasurer. The new CLP executive committee made it clear they would no longer support Harold Lever. Fred Balcombe[8], a close friend of Lever’s and very influential in the party, called them ‘three young Turks’.

Pat Karney recalls that the attacks on himself, Graham Stringer and Eddy Newman made by Joe Ogden and Harold Lever got national press coverage because Lever had been Harold Wilson’s economic advisor. The tabloid headlines warned of a ‘left-wing threat to the Labour Party’. But Pat and Graham couldn’t be dismissed as middle class in-comers, as many of the new young activists were labelled, because they had grown up in Manchester.

Workings of the Labour Group on the Council
Manchester’s Labour Group in the mid to late 1970s was a mix of retired men (mostly), engineering workers, shop workers and a small number of professional people who tended to dominate the leadership. Their meetings had no written agendas or minutes and committee chairs were appointed by the group officers. Discipline was rigid and it was very hard for new, young councillors to have any impact on decisions.

The Town Hall was also a forbidding place – a venue for municipal ceremonies and functions with visitors by appointment only. According to Pat Karney, when council tenants came to pay their rent, they were treated very patronisingly. He describes the Town Hall then as being ‘frozen in the 1950s’.

The young left-wing activists wanted to change all this. They wanted to see more radical policies implemented with councillors being made accountable to the communities they served, not ‘propping up the bureaucracy in the Town Hall’.

Unlike Liverpool, the Left in Manchester was not dominated by the Militant Tendency. There was a small group of Militant supporters and a small number who subscribed to other Trotskyite groups, such as Socialist Organiser and, later, Socialist Action, but the majority of Manchester’s Left was not affiliated to any particular faction.

In 1977, John Nicholson (later Deputy Leader of the Council) came to Manchester as a married, post-graduate student and settled in Rusholme in the Ardwick CLP. He was involved in anti-fascist campaigning and joined the Labour Party in response to a leaflet from Dominic and John Byrne, both Militant supporters. Labour Party members in Ardwick CLP were actively involved in campaigning against the National Front and there was considerable concern that the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, permitted a National Front march to take place in Longsight on 8 October 1977. This concern was registered and minuted at the subsequent Council meeting.

Around a dozen left-wing activists were accepted onto Labour’s panel of candidates for the May 1978 council elections, but they were mostly selected for what were thought to be unwinnable seats. At that time, there were two lists of candidates – A and B – and most new candidates were put on the B list for the unwinnable seats. Candidates who did well (and were deemed to have worked hard) were promoted to the A list the following year for potential selection in wards deemed to winnable for Labour. This system worked quite well as a training ground for potential councillors, and also allowed the many Party members who didn’t want to be councillors to fulfil a role as so-called ‘paper candidates’. I was one of the latter who, because I worked as a teacher in adult education, was ineligible to be a councillor, but was prepared to be a Labour candidate, so long as I didn’t get elected and have to give up my job – which I couldn’t afford to do with two children to support. I was selected as the candidate for Chorlton ward, which was still strongly Tory at the time.

The Escalation of Conflicts between Left and Right
The conflict between Left and Right increased. One of the flashpoints arose over gay rights. At the beginning of 1978, Hulme Labour Club took a booking for a gay disco. Afterwards, some members of the club complained about men kissing and cuddling, and the discos were banned. From then on there was a protest rally every Friday for about six months organised by gay liberation members, including John Shiers (later vice-chair of the City Party and a key activist), who was a postgraduate student at Manchester Polytechnic at the time and supported by the Labour Left.

The fight for gay rights exemplified the differences between the Left and Right. John believed that the Left had a different value-base from ‘these right-wing, religiously-based people’. But the differences were also a reflection of age and class and education.

In general, those on the Left regarded themselves as champions of the oppressed and disadvantaged, fearlessly fighting against prejudice and compromise. The Right, on the other hand, regarded themselves as ‘moderates’ – sensible people who recognised the realities of a world in which compromise was necessary and change could only be gradual.

Hilary Wainwright, in her book ‘A Tale of Two Parties’[9], traces the roots of the Left and Right traditions within the Labour Party. She describes the Left as ‘transformative and visionary’ and the Right as ‘ameliorative and pragmatic’.

The labels are meaningless today and, ironically, those from the old Left and the old Right often found common cause in opposition to many of Tony Blair’s ‘new’ Labour policies after 1994 .

The labels also masked a good deal of tension and conflict. Within the Left, there were constant ideological battles between Militant supporters and members of a faction new to Manchester, Socialist Organiser. Two members of this latter faction – Pete Keenlyside and Sam Darby – lived in the same Moss Side area as me. Pete Keenlyside had moved to Manchester from Cardiff in April 1978, having joined the Labour Party in 1975.

At the Moss Side CLP meetings there were increasingly strident debates between the two factions. I always felt very intimidated by the tone of these debates, but didn’t discuss this with anyone else at the time. The animosity between them seemed to be stronger than their animosity towards the Tories. They would quote texts by authors I’d never heard of, let alone read, and always seemed to have a wealth of information about international campaigns that made me feel woefully ignorant and unable to contribute to debates. They were also very dismissive of anyone deemed not to be ‘working class’. When attempting to contribute to any debate, I was very nervous about being slammed down as a ‘middle class apologist’.

I found out much later that I wasn’t alone in my feelings when David Black described their arguments on points of detail as being ‘bewilderingly esoteric’. But most people hadn’t the nerve to publicly challenge either of the factions, and, as they were allies against the Right, and were only a minority of the Left, it was felt that their tactics had to be tolerated. They were informally labelled as ‘Hard Left’.

1978 Local Elections and Two By-elections
In the May 1978 elections, Labour lost two seats to and gained one from the Conservatives, so a net loss of one seat. Val Stevens was the gain in Longsight ward – thought to be unwinnable for Labour, but the local members fought a very hard campaign and benefited from the influx of students and Labour sympathisers to the area.

In that election, Peter Hildrew was elected for the first time and then later in 1978, Jeff Wilner was elected in the Moss Side[10] by-election. Peter and Jeff were regarded as ‘Soft Left’. The by-election in Moss Side ward had been caused by the resignation of Roy Grainger. According to Pete Keenlyside, Roy’s politics were very left-wing, but he had ‘fingers in lots of pies’ and the circumstances surrounding his resignation were very mysterious[11]. There were five Labour candidates for the seat, including Graham Stringer and Kath Robinson. Pete Keenlyside thinks that the Party members on the Left voted for Kath, But Jeff Wilner, who was also not a local ward member, got the majority of the votes, being seen as a safer bet.

Also in 1978, Frank Hatton, the MP for Moss Side, died suddenly. The Militant Tendency supporters put forward Pat Wall as a candidate, while the shopworkers’ union USDAW put forward John Douglas, who was also on the Hard Left. The Right looked on in horror at a potential battle between two Hard Left candidates for a safe Labour seat. They eventually persuaded George Morton to stand and because the Left vote was split, he slipped through and won the selection, and went on to win the by-election. If ever there was a clear lesson for the Left, this was it, but the lesson wasn’t learned!

Local Reflection of National Labour Party Divisions
In December 1978, the Labour Group (all of the Labour councillors) agreed to abide by Party policy as determined by the City Party, which was a breakthrough for the Left.

The Labour Group at this time, under leader Norman Morris, was considered by Party activists to be overwhelmingly right-wing and impossible to work with. However, some of them were actually politically closer to the Left and found themselves in the right-wing group more because of personal friendships or the particular make up of their electoral ward than political opinion. In some ways, they were quite progressive – they gave a grant in 1978 to the Gay Switchboard (a local voluntary group) and were developing a radical community education policy, led by Sally Shaw.

The Labour Group was not a homogenous group, of course, but ranged from fundamentally decent people who were trying to do their best for local people, to those who were aggressively sexist and homophobic. Norman Morris, for example, was a university lecturer and considered himself to be a Tribunite[12] and was deeply upset at being described as a right-winger.

The tensions between Left and Right were not confined to the Manchester Labour Party but were national. There had been an upsurge in Party membership between 1976 and 1979 with most of these new members being on the Left and there was increasing concern at the policies being pursued by the Labour government and bitter clashes at the annual conferences.

In an attempt to deal with high levels of inflation during 1978, the government sought to negotiate a ‘Social Contract’ with the trade unions, whereby wage rises in the public sector would be kept below 5%, as an example to the private sector, which it was hoped would follow suit. Anthony Crosland (as Secretary of State for Local Government) famously said ‘the party’s over’ to Local Government trade unions. But there were widespread strikes by public sector workers during the winter of 1978/79, which led to it being dubbed the ‘Winter of Discontent.

1979 General and Local Elections
Eventually James Callaghan called the general election for May 1979, to take place at the same time as the local elections. This meant an increased turnout for the local elections. So although Labour lost nationally to the Tories (led by Margaret Thatcher), in Manchester, Labour gained 10 Council seats, including Graham Stringer, Pat Karney and Eddy Newman, taking their total up to 63, with 13 of these considering themselves to be on the Left[13].

As well as becoming a councillor, Graham Stringer remained in the powerful position of Chair of the City Party, a post to which he had been elected at the March 1979 AGM. The policy document drawn up at that AGM included a commitment to no rent rises and no cuts in council services. This was despite the context of high levels of inflation and spiralling wage increases.

Also in March 1979 there had been a Council by-election in the Lloyd Street ward (caused by the resignation of Harold Collins), which was won by a Labour left-winger, Arnold Spencer. Arnold had been on the Council previously (1971 -1973), but had then gone to work in Africa for five years.

Despite the Left’s successes locally, the 1979 general election defeat was a huge blow. The divisions between the Left and Right within the Party about how to deal with the new Tory government became increasingly bitter. In Manchester, the crucial distinctions between Left and Right centred on councillors’ adherence (or lack of it) to City Party policy, and particularly the equality agenda and the commitment to not making any cuts to council services or increasing rents.

Despite having agreed in December 1978 to abide by Party policy, the councillors decided to increase rents from May 1979. Of the 13 left-wingers on the Council, only six (Kath Robinson, Arnold Spencer, Graham Stringer, Pat Karney and Eddy Newman, and later Alf Home) were initially prepared to break the whip and vote against the leadership. The chief whip, Bob Litherland, repeatedly advised them not to move resolutions in council or speak out, warning that “they’ll hang, draw and quarter you”. Increasingly, though, others came to support the six and eventually the dissidents regularly voting together in Council numbered up to twelve – ‘the dirty dozen’, according to the Manchester Evening News.

The 1979 election took place too soon for the replacement of Harold Lever as Labour candidate for Manchester Central, but after Labour’s national defeat, Lever had no interest in fighting to retain his position and resigned as MP to accept a peerage. Bob Litherland was selected as candidate to fight the first by-election of the new parliament in September 1979, and won.

John Nicholson, believed a deal was done between the Left and Right and there was no formal shortlisting process and that as Bob Litherland was seen as sympathetic to the Left, they didn’t object to him being the parliamentary candidate.[14] However, Eddy Newman who was Secretary of Cheetham Branch of Central CLP at the time recalls they had a nomination meeting, and agreed to nominate Audrey Wise – who had recently lost her Coventry seat in the General Election.

Eddy Newman said, “In those days, CLP General Committee delegates shortlisted and selected from amongst the nominations. Unfortunately, Audrey was not shortlisted by the CLP, but other Branches of Central CLP and affiliated union branches made nominations. There were four people on the shortlist, including Bob Litherland. Only one of the three ‘Young Turks’, Pat Karney, campaigned for Bob’s selection. Bob won a narrow majority of votes of General Committee delegates on the first ballot. So there was no deal done to prevent a formal shortlisting, and there was a genuine contest within the constraints of the rules of that time which applied nationally. Once Bob was selected, he was indeed a unifying character who reached out to Right and Left, and we pulled together behind him.”

The Left and the Right were initially united in campaigning against the new Tory government’s cuts. A ‘Campaign for Manchester’ was launched in the autumn of 1979, with Norman Morris as chairman under the slogan – ‘To defend living standards and protect our public services’. Party members were extremely active – distributing leaflets in workplaces and door-to-door, holding local and city-wide meetings and rallies; and organising city-wide meetings with ‘big name’ speakers, such as one in November which was addressed by Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Michael Meacher. This was all aimed at ensuring that the public didn’t blame the Council for the cuts. But the City Party wanted to go further, arguing that the Council should refuse to implement them. When the party began the selection process for the panel of candidates for the 1980 elections it insisted on a commitment from candidates that they would abide by its no-cuts policy.

In December 1979 John Shiers moved back to Manchester after working in Islington for a spell as a community worker. He had seen a Labour council in Islington that was completely different from anything he’d seen before. There was a real commitment from councillors to form alliances with community organisations and encouragement of community development projects. Ken Livingstone was active in the London Local Government Committee and John had seen at first hand the real potential of the Labour Party to bring about change.

John worked at the Family Housing Association in Manchester, where he met David Black and Hilary Knight. He transferred his Labour Party membership to Hulme and made contact with MCRC[15] (Manchester Community Resource Centre), an umbrella/co-ordinating body for voluntary and community organisations. Together with others, he formed the Manchester Anti-cuts Committee; one of their early public meetings had about 150 people present. They were trying to create an alliance between communities and the trades unions in campaigning against the council cuts budget of March 1980 and John started to make contact with left-wing councillors, including Pat Karney and Graham Stringer. The Anti-cuts Committee brought together both Labour Party members and non-members who decided it was worth joining the Labour Party to get rid of the councillors who were making cuts. There were also Communist Party members, Trotskyites, and NALGO activists on the Anti-cuts Committee.

Richard Leese, the current[16] Leader of the Council, who was a youth worker at the time, got involved in the Greater Manchester Anti-cuts campaign and went on to join the Labour Party in Crumpsall in 1980.

Expulsions from the Manchester Labour Group
In February 1980, the Council budget for the forthcoming year was discussed in the City Party. It was agreed that the rate levied should be sufficient to maintain the existing services, and that rents should not be increased again. This position was supported by the majority of the CLPs and endorsed by the Labour Group on the Council. But, in the event, the right-wing of the Labour Group, who were still in the majority, proposed cutting £13.7 million from the budget for 1980/81.

The 13 left-wing councillors voted against this and were expelled from the Labour Group (see Appendix 1A). They were reinstated after the May elections following an appeal to Labour’s National Executive. Left-wingers were also expelled on two further occasions.

The Baguley Branch had mandated its councillors (Kath Robinson, Frances Done and Tony Burns) to vote against rent rises, but Tony Burns had conveniently absented himself from the Council chamber at the crucial moment. According to Kath, the Chief Whip attended the Baguley branch meeting to ‘get him off the hook’ – in other words to explain to the branch that he would have been expelled from the Labour group if he’d voted against the whip.

Left Caucus: A Party Within The Party
From this point on, the Left councillors (together with Left activists in the City Party) started to meet informally to discuss tactics. It started with a party at Kath Robinson’s house and became known as the Left Caucus. The right-wingers thought of these meetings as ‘secret’ and were delighted when ‘leaked’ information reached them. But at that point, the Left Caucus was a more informal group that gathered in the City Arms and other local pubs[17] to talk politics and tactics in a great spirit of camaraderie and openness, so it was hardly surprising that their tactics ‘leaked’ out.

The Left activists from Manchester spent a lot of their weekends going to rallies and meetings around the country. They made contact with councillors and activists from other areas and knew that they were part of a wider movement looking for ways of protecting people from Thatcherite cuts. The national developments gave them confidence and they knew that if they were well organised, they could get something done.

John Shiers was elected to the City Party in 1980 as a delegate from Moss Side CLP and joined trade union activists Sorrel Brookes and Hilary Knight. They all realised that they couldn’t just have a platform of anti-cuts, but needed a positive policy programme that represented the whole social movement (women, gays, black and disabled people) and would push local government towards democratisation. They got involved in the City Party policy working parties that were putting together policy documents for discussion at branches and CLPs and that would form the basis of the local election manifesto.

In the May 1980 elections, Labour won nine seats from the Tories, increasing the Labour group to 72 seats. Although the Left candidates had been mostly in the ‘unwinnable’ seats, a further six[18] of them were elected, making a total of 19 on the Left to the 53 on the Right.

Sheila Newman (Robertson at the time) was active in John Maguire’s campaign in Barlow Moor ward. She had moved to Manchester as a student in 1978 and been involved in Geoff Hodgson’s unsuccessful campaign as the Labour parliamentary candidate in Withington in 1979. She joined the Labour Party after the general election defeat, becoming secretary of Barlow Moor Branch in 1980.

In June 1980, the Council Leader, Norman Morris, announced that the Council was facing a crisis of ‘doomsday’ proportions, requiring further cuts of £15 million and increases in rents. The City Party believed that the Labour Group shouldn’t take precipitate action, but should join with other Labour groups and town hall trade unions to campaign against the government.

Over the weekend, prior to the July Labour Group meeting, there were (more formal) Left Caucus meetings and City Party meetings to plan a strategy. They needed to be smart in order to succeed. They became quite adept at it, and this made council meetings go on for much longer than had been usual. Different individuals took responsibility for scrutinising the budget and policy of a particular service area – Kath Robinson took Social Services, Graham Stringer took Housing, Frances Done looked at the overall budget. They looked for alternatives to the proposed cuts and other ways of generating income, and planned tactics and fall-back positions.

The Labour Group prior to the Council meeting was fraught and went on till after midnight. The Council meeting itself on 30 July went on till 11.45pm (only five minutes less than the all-time record, according to Val Stevens) with lots of amendments and long debates on each one. None of this is recorded in the Council minutes, just the number of amendments. In response to the proposal to make £15 million of further cuts and increase council house rents, the Left moved an amendment to:

“send a telegram to Michael Heseltine [Minister of Environment][Council] cannot carry out his demands to cut expenditure without seriously damaging, possibly beyond repair, services to the city… No party made any commitment during the pre-election campaign to reduce services to the city…”

Eighteen of the nineteen left-wingers voted for this (John Wilson was absent from the meeting), joined by Dick Reddington, an idiosyncratic individual who generally attended the Left Caucus meetings, but was fairly right-wing on a number of issues. But as 65 voted against it was obviously lost. On each of the subsequent detailed cuts proposals, the Left voted against, but were outvoted by the Right.

The determination of what disciplinary action should be taken was long and drawn out. It seemed as though Norman Morris didn’t really know what to do. He was probably reluctant to take drastic action in such difficult times, but couldn’t ignore the flouting of Labour Group discipline. Paul Carmody (North West Regional Labour Party Secretary) was brought in to assist.

Frances Done’s view now is that if there had been some wiser people around to advise Norman, the conflict could perhaps have been avoided. The Right had a very old-fashioned approach and new councillors were supposed to wait years before speaking in Council. She felt that a lot of the conflict was about old versus new, rather than Right versus Left, and that other councils didn’t have the same problems as Manchester. Eddy Newman also thinks now that a more sensitive and sensible leader would have absorbed the more moderate left-wingers into the administration and isolated them from the more militant ones. John Shiers disagrees. He believes that the ideological differences were too fundamental to be resolved managerially.

Whilst Norman Morris was incapable of dealing with the rebel councillors and didn’t explain to the Party what was going on, some of those on the Right valiantly tried to explain the reasons for their actions. Jim Bradley[19] put a lot of effort into writing reports for the Moss Side CLP and producing newsletters for the Party from the Council.

“The city council faces inflation running at between 15% and 25%. The government forecasts less than 10% and is unwilling to make proper provision for inflation in its grants, which make up over half of the income of local councils. With the city’s costs so unpredictable due to inflation, it is not a sign of incompetence by either the group leadership or the City Treasurer that the budget has had to be revised and deficits of between £12 million and £34 million are now predicted. Every council in the country is in a similar position… Three options are available to the Labour group:

  1. Ignore the financial problem and campaign for the downfall of the Thatcher government (City Party position);
  2. Levy a supplementary rate (ie increase the rates bills to residents retrospectively);
  3. Attempt to balance the budget – in which case, the earlier in the year the cuts are made, the less severe they need to be. To save £30 million, either cut £1 million a week for 30 weeks or £1.5 million a week for 20 weeks.”

He very cleverly posed a scenario that would follow option 1 (paraphrased).

“Assume Thatcher is successfully removed and a new general election is imminent. Manchester residents wading knee high in uncollected rubbish and skating around on unsalted roads. TV and press highlighting irresponsibility of Labour movement and Tories returned to power with an even greater majority. If Thatcher not removed from power and council unable to balance budget, town hall workers would not get paid for last few months of the year, the Labour Group would have to relinquish control and a ‘local commissioner’ would have to be brought in to run the council. Imagine the effect of Mrs Thatcher’s cuts carried out by gleeful Tories … compulsory redundancies galore … the staff cut by half, the services in complete ruins …

“No! Labour Councillors must not OPT OUT OF THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES to the citizens of Manchester. To do so would be (acting like) ‘Thatcherites in disguise’.”[20]

In the Moss Side CLP newsletters, Val Stevens was also given a platform to explain the Left’s position.

“Government strategy is designed to prevent local authorities from carrying out any policies without the consent of government. If the strategy succeeds, it will reduce local councils to merely local administrators and negate the need for democratically elected councillors.

“There is less dynamic opposition (by the Labour Group) to this Westminster aggrandisement than there is to the, so far unsuccessful, attempts by the City Party to require greater accountability of the group to the party. In fact the group passed a resolution pledging to fight all attempts to ‘undermine’ the Labour Group. This was not aimed at Heseltine, but at the NEC’s proposals to make Labour groups more accountable to local parties.

“… In Manchester we have had a rate increase of 28%, one round of cuts of £13.7 million, another round of cuts close to £15 million, rent rises averaging £2.50 a week… (and the possibility of compulsory redundancies).

“How much of the Tory manifesto do they have to carry out before they become Tories themselves?”

At the Council meeting in October 1980, the left-wing councillors put an amendment to the policy committee minutes (actually the 12th amendment that morning), opposing the Right to Buy legislation:

“Council reaffirms its decision not to sell council houses… Council does not intend to comply with the Right to Buy section of the Act… Inform the Secretary of State of our decision”.

Kevan Lim and Graham Martin didn’t vote on this amendment (perhaps they were out of the Council chamber), but the remaining 17 left-wingers were joined by David Ford (another idiosyncratic right-winger) and Roy Sadler (a left-winger elected in a by-election). But it was obviously merely a gesture, with no hope of success.

National Labour Party Split: the Birth of the SDP
Nationally, the divisions between the left and right-wings of the Labour Party were growing. At the Party conference in September 1980 a new system for electing the Party Leader had been agreed (an electoral ‘college’ that would involve individual members and trade unions) and shortly after this, Callaghan resigned as Leader. His timing meant that his successor would be elected under the old rules (ie by MPs only). The two leadership candidates were Michael Foot (left-wing) and Denis Healey (right-wing) with the election taking place in November.

Healey was the favourite, but Foot won with a narrow majority. And although Healey became deputy leader, this wasn’t enough to satisfy some in the Party who were extremely unhappy about its leftward leaning and the strength of the trade unions.

On 23 January 1981, four Labour MPs, Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, and Bill Rodgers, left to form the Social Democrat Party (SDP). They were dubbed the ‘gang of four’, adopting the phrase used to describe a powerful group within the Chinese Communist Party who were convicted of treason. Other Labour MPs (and one Tory) joined them and they began the process of forming SDP party branches throughout the country. Some of the right-wing Labour councillors in Manchester eventually defected to them[21].

More Labour Group Expulsions
At the City Party AGM in March 1981, Graham Stringer was re-elected as chair and Val Stevens as vice chair. All those elected to the Executive Committee were left-wing activists, so from then on it was possible to have open discussions about tactics in this forum, rather than relying only on the informal Left Caucus.

In mid 1981, 17 left-wing councillors were expelled from the Labour Group (see Appendix 1A). This was the second expulsion for 13 of them. Although generally voting with the Left, Kevan Lim wasn’t expelled. According to one left-winger, he was hoping to get a parliamentary seat and needed to keep in with everybody, so his voting with the Left was thought only to be an attempt to increase his credibility with the Party. Perhaps he was able to convince the group leadership that he would behave in future.

Nationally, the Left were making big advances within the Labour Party and Tony Benn was nominated as deputy leader of the Party as a challenger to Denis Healey. The campaign for his election was seen by many as a battle for the ‘soul’ of the Party. Benn himself constantly stressed that the contest was not about personalities but the policies to be pursued by the Party.

Vigorous debates took place up and down the country over the summer of 1981 and it was looking increasingly likely that Benn would win the election in September, but in the event he was narrowly beaten by Healey, who got 50.4% of the vote to Benn’s 49.6%.

Despite this defeat, the Left were very confident that they were winning the battle of ideas within the Party. The Greater London Council (with Ken Livingstone as leader) was revolutionising local government in London (despite the virulently hostile press) and, along with left-wing councillors in other cities, the Left in Manchester were feeling increasingly confident of success.

The City Party Executive Committee (EC), together with the 17 ‘rebel’ councillors, became the core of the Left Caucus and it became easier to organise meetings as the councillors could book rooms in the Town Hall, rather than always having to meet in upstairs rooms of public houses.

1981 National Executive Committee Inquiry
There were no local elections in May 1981 (the Greater Manchester County Council elections had taken place then) although there was a by-election in Blackley ward, which was won by a Labour left-winger, George Chadwick[22]. Andy Thomas had left the Council, so George’s election didn’t increase the number of left-wing councillors. But the Left were determined to increase their number in 1982, which would be another full-council election, because of boundary changes.

The City Party EC had the responsibility for setting up the panel of people from which the party branches would select their candidates, and started work on a strategy to remove the right-wing councillors who refused to implement party policy and continued to vote for cuts. All candidates were interviewed during the summer of 1981 and 24 councillors were not included on the final list on the grounds of ‘non-commitment to Party policy’.

At this point 47 Labour Group members wrote to the Labour Party NEC asking for an inquiry. Tony Burns says that this was a mixture of Labour councillors from the Left and Right who were fed up with what was going on, but none of the core of 17 left-wingers was part of this group. On 23 September 1981, the NEC resolved to conduct an inquiry into the expulsions, the relationship between the Party and the Group, and the compilation of the panel of candidates.

The next day, Michael Heseltine announced in parliament his intention of reducing the Block Grant to local government for the current year (despite it being six months gone) by almost £300 million. This so-called ‘holdback’ was designed to force councils to reduce their expenditure to below the Grant Related Expenditure (GRE) level he had set for them. Those councils with expenditure at less than GRE would be exempt from ‘holdback’, but at that point Manchester was spending at £63.8 million above GRE.

Despite the anger and frustration experienced by all councils and councillors at this retrospective action by the government, the right-wing Labour councillors in Manchester were still prepared to acquiesce and make further budget cuts.

Although this was seen at the time as abject cowardice and a betrayal of everything Labour stood for, one has to look at why this happened. Local councillors could be surcharged if they failed to implement government policy and the bruising experiences of the Clay Cross councillors in Derbyshire[23] put real fear into all councillors.

At the council meeting on 7 October 1981, the Left moved an amendment condemning Heseltine’s politically motivated announcement:

“… [It] will remove the last vestige of independence from local government, restrict financial independence… place an impossible burden of rates on working people… political response is necessary to defend local government.”

The amendment was defeated with 65 votes against, but there were 22 voting for it – 16 of the 17 usual suspects (not Dennis Barker) plus Dick Reddington, Keith Barnes, David Ford, Reg Latham, Roy Sadler and even Russell Talbot (a virulent right-winger).

The NEC inquiry into the expulsion of the 17 left-wingers was held on 25 October 1981. Both sides had made extensive written submissions and Frances Done attended the inquiry to make the point that the Left were not breaking the whip irresponsibly but voting in line with City Party policy. The outcome of the inquiry (on 30 November) was that the 17 expelled councillors had to be reinstated and the 24 right-wingers had to be put back on the panel.

Pete Keenlyside decided to go on the panel in the autumn of 1981 because he felt he could no longer go on criticising the councillors without being prepared to do the job himself. In his words he had to “put up or shut up”. He was in the Hulme branch then and was selected as one of the three candidates (along with Val Dunn and Sheila Newman) for the election in 1982.

Pete remembers the Left councillors having “amazing meetings” on Sunday lunch-times in the Rising Sun pub. The landlord was the brother of Ken Strath[24] and the pub was normally shut on Sunday. But although the pub was shut, the pumps weren’t! Pete felt that period was useful in terms of training and set a lot of the templates for the way the Left operated when in power. They learned useful skills, such as how to discuss things without falling out and arrive at collective decisions with some sort of responsibility. According to Pete, expelling the Left councillors from the Labour Group was probably the most stupid thing the right-wing ever did.

A truce between the Right and Left was declared in time for the May 1982 elections, but the manifesto had been drawn up by the City Party without the involvement or co-operation of the Labour Group. These elections didn’t go well for Labour, mostly because of national issues, including the Falklands war and the foundation of the SDP. Five of Manchester’s Labour councillors had defected to the SDP (including three former Lord Mayors). Three key marginals were won by the Tories and there was a reduction in the overall vote for Labour. But although Labour’s total number of seats went down from 72 to 69, there were 15 additional left-wingers elected, making their total now 30[25]. Joe Holly was one of those elected in place of Ken McKeown (who had stood under his new SDP colours), but Joe hadn’t expected to win and wasn’t really planning to be a councillor. Kath Robinson held a big party at her house to celebrate the Left’s success.

1982 New Leadership of the Labour Group
Norman Morris, the Labour Group leader, had retired from the Council in April 1982 and at the Labour Group AGM in May 1982, Graham Stringer and Bill Egerton stood for the position. Bill was elected and he attempted to unify the Labour Group by offering six of the left-wing councillors deputy chair positions. He also made a commitment to implementing a number of policies from the manifesto, including banning corporal punishment in schools (a leading right-winger, Gordon Conquest, had argued strongly for this) and a reduction in the military presence at the Manchester show (although not the outright ban called for in the manifesto).

Kath Robinson was offered the Chair of the Land and Property Committee after Frances Done had turned it down, but, since she knew nothing about it, she also turned it down. She was then given the deputy position on Social Services, but was told by the chair, Hugh Barrett, that he would have nothing to do with her: “If you think you’re being my deputy, you’ve got another think coming”. He instructed the officers that she would be deputy in name only. But then, when Hugh was on holiday, a child in the care of Social Services was murdered in one of the city’s parks by another child in the council’s care, and Kath was the only one around to deal with the press, so the officers had no alternative but to involve her.

The Left/Right truce broke down in the autumn of 1982. At the Council meeting on 3 November there was a proposal to cut housing maintenance expenditure that would have a devastating impact on jobs in the Direct Works department. The Left moved an amendment against this proposal, and although they stated that they recognised that the cuts were caused by the Conservative government, they criticised the housing department’s leadership, stating:

“This [budget problem] has been exacerbated by the uninvestigated error within the Housing Committee’s budget… [we call for an] urgent meeting between the Direct Works committee and all the trade union representatives [in order to] draw up a survival strategy for the Direct Works department.”

This amendment was lost, and then 27 of the 30 left-wing councillors broke the assurances they had given to the NEC and voted against the Labour Group’s cuts proposals. The whip was withdrawn from the 27 and they were expelled from the Labour Group again until May 1984. This was the third expulsion for some of them (see Appendix 1A).

The Left Make Gains in 1983 Elections, But Not Enough
In the local elections in May 1983, the number of Labour councillors increased to 73 on a higher than normal turnout. The high profile of the debate in the city and the high turnout increased Labour’s vote, which was against the national trend. 33 of the Labour councillors elected were on the Left – five being newly elected. But, as two left-wingers had retired[26] there was only a net gain of three. This was still not enough to form a majority in the Labour Group, but the goal of a change of administration was in sight. The Tories were down to 21 seats with the Liberal/SDP Alliance at five.

The general election in October 1983 resulted in a landslide national defeat for Labour, with the party getting its lowest share of the votes since before the war. This was a shock to left-wing Labour activists around the country, many of whom had believed that the Thatcher government would only be in power for one term. Michael Foot resigned as Labour Leader and Neil Kinnock was elected.

In Manchester, the national defeat gave added impetus to the determination to implement socialist policies at local level. There was a concern that the right-wing controlled Labour Group would set a cuts budget in the Spring of 1984 before the Left had their chance to win more seats at the election in May and implement the manifesto.

At the Council meeting on 7 December 1983 the Left staged a demonstration about the lack of crèche facilities for the children of councillors, town hall workers and visitors. There was a plan to upgrade the bar area of the members’ room at a cost of £40,000 and Frances Done and John Nicholson had worked out that the ladies’ toilets area on the ground floor of the Town Hall could be turned into a crèche for the same amount of money. This alternative proposal had been rejected by the Right on the Labour Group and the demonstration was a device to highlight the differences between the Left and the Right.

The demonstration plan was that all the councillors with children would bring them into the Council meeting in the morning, but then take them home at lunchtime. Val Stevens brought in her 18-month-old daughter, Frances Done brought in her son and Ronni Myers brought in her grandson. They were disappointed that the men with children didn’t bring theirs in, but one of these (John Nicholson) was opposed to the demonstration and others had difficulties persuading their wives to co-operate.

Things began amicably enough, but then Val’s daughter trapped her finger in one of the drawers at the front of her seat and started yelling. The Lord Mayor (Michael Taylor) referred to the standing orders (rules) about members creating disorder and told her to remove the child from the chamber. Frances challenged this and told Val not to go since the standing order referred to a councillor (or a member of the public) creating disorder. The Mayor adjourned the meeting but the Left had made their point and the crèche proposal was eventually agreed by the full Labour Group.

With renewed hope of the Left achieving a majority the following year, and thereby being in control of the administration, there was a particular fervour around drawing up the policy documents and manifesto for the local elections in May 1984. Different groups of activists with particular interests and knowledge were involved in the policy working parties drawing up draft texts. The agreed procedure was that the draft document should go out to affiliated union branches, socialist societies and the 33 branch parties for discussion and amendment. These amendments then went to the respective CLPs and if agreed were forwarded on to the City Party for debate at the policy conference in March. I was the Assistant Secretary of the City Party at this point (Roger Done was Secretary) and I was very involved in the preparation of these policy documents.

The final document would probably have been denigrated by Gerald Kaufman, who labelled the Labour Party’s 1983 general election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’, but the process for drawing up and agreeing Manchester’s Labour manifesto was very democratic and comprehensive.

The City Party finally moved its office out of the Hulme Labour club and into a temporary building shared with the City Labour Party Printing Company[27].

At the City Party AGM in March 1984, Graham Stringer presented his annual report as Chair:

“The re-election of a Conservative government in June 1983 has overshadowed every event of the last year. Since the election the Tories’ attack on fundamental democratic and civil rights has intensified. The plans to abolish the Greater Manchester County Council, introduce expenditure controls on councils and further cut jobs and services, must be resisted.

“In Manchester our ability to resist has been reduced by the expulsion of 26 Labour councillors from the Labour group last March for voting in line with Labour Party policy.

“The manifesto, as passed on 4 March 1984, spells out clearly that the Labour Party in Manchester believes that the way to protect the people of Manchester is not to administer cuts, but to say an emphatic ‘no’ to the Tories.

“It is imperative that all Labour councillors meet as one group, support the manifesto, and avoid the damaging expulsions that have weakened the Party over the last 12 months.”

Graham referred to the inquiry by the National Agent (David Hughes) in July 1983 that the City Party should be reconstituted without direct delegation from the trade unions. Hughes had said that he would consult the trade unions, but hadn’t, whereas the City Party had consulted them and confirmed that they were overwhelmingly in favour of continuing with direct delegation. The outcome of Hughes’ inquiry wasn’t reported anywhere, but on 16th January 1984, Hughes informed the City Party officers that if the CLPs supported direct delegation, then so did he. Graham was of the view that the initial proposal was an attack on the financing of the City Party, and that their prompt and firm action had defeated it. It may also have been an attempt to remove the trade union voting power from the Left, possibly prompted by the letter to the NEC from the 47 councillors. But whatever had prompted the inquiry, it didn’t succeed in separating the trade unions from the City Party.

At the April 1984 meeting of the City Party’s Executive, all councillors were urged not to hold separate Left and Right Caucus meetings, and not to attend the Group AGM (scheduled for 4 May, immediately after the election) until after the meeting with the NEC representatives scheduled for 6 May. It was spelt out in the minutes that the dispute was not between councillors, but between some councillors and the City Party.

1984: The Left Gain the Majority Within the Labour Group But Not the Council as a Whole
The result of the May 1984 election was the overall number of Labour seats increased by five, so the composition of the council was 78 Labour, 15 Tories and 6 Liberals (including one SDP), but there were ten new left-wingers elected (some of the Labour seats having changed candidates)[28]. Richard Leese was one of the new councillors elected. He had agreed to stand as the Crumpsall Labour candidate because the seat was thought to be unwinnable, but to everyone’s astonishment, they had won, although with only a very small majority (around 80 votes). Although the Left had gained ten new Councillors, Joe Holly had stood down and so the net gain was only nine (from 33 to 42).

The Left still had to persuade some of the other Labour councillors to join them to secure a majority on the Council. So a debate took place in the Left Caucus about how to get people to change sides. Some took the view that they should put the manifesto to them and explain what they wanted to do and if they came over, fine, but if not, not. Others thought they should be offered Chair or Deputy Chair positions to win them over. Pete Keenlyside’s view was they should be given what they wanted if that brought them over. Ken Strath was quite shocked at this. In the end it was agreed that the ones prepared to join the Left should be given what they wanted.

The four who changed their allegiance were Tony Burns, Keith Barnes, Jack Flanagan and Mike Harrison. Kevan Lim (who had been a waverer in the past) came back into the fold. This gave the Left a clear majority of Labour councillors (47), although not an overall majority on the council. Later (after the Council AGM), when it was clear that the Left had the majority, Bill Risby also changed his allegiance (see chapter 3) as did Winnie Smith, a former Lord Mayor who turned from the most vitriolic opponent of the Left to an enthusiastic supporter.

Despite the decision of the City Party, the right-wing went ahead with an AGM on 4 May. They met without the expelled councillors (who had boycotted the meeting) and carried out elections for Labour Group officers.

The meeting with the NEC on 6 May 1984 was convened and chaired by Eric Heffer. Heffer was the chair of the Labour NEC’s local government sub-committee, but at the recent NEC elections, the Bennite Left – which included Heffer – had lost ground to the Kinnockite Left, so the Manchester Left were uncertain which way the meeting with Heffer would go.

Although the Left now had a majority of Labour councillors, if the expelled Councillors weren’t re-instated, the Right would still have a majority in the Labour group. Of the 27 expelled, Peter Hildrew and Joe Holly were no longer councillors, so the issue to be determined was whether the Labour whip would be restored to the remaining 25.

According to Kath Robinson, Heffer had been sent to ‘bang heads together’ but the Right were full of fury and venom towards him and not prepared to listen. Paul Carmody from the North West Regional Labour Party was also present. The Left had agreed that only Graham Stringer would speak on their behalf and he explained that they only wanted to carry out the policies of the City Party, challenge the government and protect people’s jobs, etc. The Right said “They know nothing…we’ve given years of our lives”, etc. The atmosphere in the meeting was very unpleasant. Heffer was stunned at how bad things were and read the riot act to the right-wingers. He said that they had to accept that the Left councillors had been legitimately elected and “Get on with it!”

Heffer and Carmody were perturbed to find that an AGM had already been held and so they expunged it. Heffer ruled that the 25 should have the whip restored and that the AGM should be re-run. When he left the meeting, he shook his head and said to Graham Stringer, “You’ve got a bloody hard job on here, sorting this mess out.”

The Labour Group was re-constituted to include both wings of the party and a new date was set for the Group AGM on 15th May. This was also attended by Heffer

The Left Caucus held a series of meetings to decide who should stand for which positions. Both Frances Done and John Nicholson stood for deputy leader. Graham Stringer wanted Frances to be elected (and so did John Shiers), but many thought that the political direction might change if she was deputy, as she and Graham were thought to be politically close and rather Soft Left. She says now that she wasn’t that close to Graham’s views, but stood for the position because she thought there needed to be somebody strong as his deputy.

By all accounts the 15th May Group AGM was a pretty fractious meeting. Some of the women on the Left thought that Graham Stringer needed a strong woman working with him as deputy. Others wanted John Nicholson as a strong Hard Left candidate. Some had wanted Eddy Newman to stand as leader, but he says he had no interest in being leader, and had supported Graham Stringer for that role, and he might have been interested in being deputy, had he not been successful in being selected as Manchester’s Labour Euro-Parliamentary Candidate the previous February[29].

People’s loyalties were split and despite everyone trying to be open and democratic about the process, personalities and popularity naturally influenced the decisions. In the end, the majority voted for John Nicholson as Deputy Leader, in the belief that the combination of political views (his and Graham’s) would keep the Group together. How disastrously wrong that proved to be!

The City Party meeting on 14 May 1984 officially endorsed all the nominations from the Left Caucus and these were all accepted at the Labour Group AGM on 15 May. So, political control passed to the Left. Graham Stringer was elected as Leader of the Labour Group and therefore the Council, with John Nicholson as Deputy, and all the other nominations, made by the City Party the night before, were endorsed.

Pat Karney recalls that he, Graham and John went to see Bill Egerton in the Labour Group office to tell him of the change in leadership. Bill was waiting for them with Sid Silverman, Colin Brierley and Tommy Hamnett. They were sitting in a fug of smoke (almost everyone smoked in those days) and just said “OK, fine, we’re ready to move out” and they just went. No argument, no challenge, no fuss and not the response Pat had expected. He felt this was an unbelievable anti-climax after their ten year struggle.

Nick Harris recalls going with Graham, John, Pat, Frances and Kath Robinson to see Jim Hetherington, the Town Clerk, to tell him that they had now taken over and would be the new leadership. Jim was apparently completely baffled by this – an indication of the complete lack of awareness of the Council’s political context, which is unthinkable today.

Nick says now, “We hadn’t actually got much idea of what we were going to do next. We had the policies, but in terms of running the bureaucratic machine with 40,000 employees, we hadn’t given that a lot of thought – the whole enormity of it.”

After the meeting with Jim Hetherington, Kath Robinson and Sheila Newman, as the new Chair and Deputy of Social Services, went to see the director, Cliff Hilditch[30], in his office, but his secretary said he was too busy to see them. Kath explained who they were, but the secretary still insisted they’d need to make an appointment. Kath had to say very firmly to the secretary that she should tell the director they were there to see him and unless he was doing something absolutely vital, he should see them now!

The Left’s euphoria at their success was tempered by a recognition that things were not going to be easy. They suspected that the right-wing would not give up so easily, and this proved to be the case.

Council AGM May 1984
At the Council AGM on 23 May 1984, the right-wing Labour councillors formed an unprecedented alliance with the Tories and Liberals to overturn some of the decisions made by the Labour Group. They didn’t challenge for the positions of Leader or Deputy or any of the chairs, but did challenge for the position of Lord Mayor and over the composition of committees. This had been anticipated by the City Party Executive at its meeting on 14 May.

There were two left-wingers absent from the AGM (reducing their total votes to 45), but one from the Right was also missing. After the usual formalities, it came to the vote on the new Mayor. The new Left leadership nominated Ken Strath. The Tories nominated Harold Tucker, a local solicitor[31]. The Labour Right voted with the Tories, as did the Liberals, giving Harold Tucker 51 votes to 45 for Ken Strath (see chapter 3).

On the composition of committees, there were amendments from the Labour Right to replace Left nominations on five of the service committees, and to replace the deputy nominations with right-wingers. All were lost, but some by only one vote.

But then, when it came to the 22 members of the Policy Committee, an amendment to replace 10 Labour left-wingers with 10 Labour right-wingers was carried 51 for, 45 against. The Tories and Liberals had happily exploited the split within the Labour Group and voted with the Labour Right. Another amendment – to replace Val Dunn and Kath Robinson with a Tory and a Liberal – was lost, however, with 20 for and 67 against. Whatever their differences, the Labour right-wingers didn’t support Tories and Liberals over Labour members.

The Battle to Select Airport Directorships
The most fraught battle of all was over the 10 airport directorships (covered in more detail in chapter 8). The slate of 10 left-wingers put forward by the new leadership was subjected amazingly to a total of 12 amendments, each of which was voted on before the directorships were settled.

The first amendment was to replace five left-wingers with five from the Right. The vote was tied (44 each)[32] and so deemed not to be carried. The second amendment was to replace six left-wingers with six from the Right and this was carried by 45 votes to 44.

An adjournment was called to plan tactics and then a series of amendments were put dealing with names one at a time, some of which were carried by 44 to 43 and some not (either equality of votes or lost by one). But then when the substantive motion was put (containing the summary of the people elected on an individual basis), this was lost by 45 votes to 49.

After this debacle, there are different views of what happened next. According the Tony Burns, the previous Chief Whip (Colin Brierley) approached Graham Stringer and John Nicholson with a list of who was unacceptable to the Labour Right (Val Dunn, Ronni Myers and John Byrne) and who was acceptable. Graham, John and Mike Harrison looked over the list and agreed to go with it. But, according the John Nicholson, he personally moved the original list again, since everything else had been defeated. The list was carried by 53 votes to 39 and it could very well be the case that many of those voting for believed it to be a compromise rather than the original list – such was the state of people’s minds by that stage of the proceedings.

Graham Stringer saw control of the Airport Board as crucial for the economic renewal of Manchester (see chapter 8), but I wonder if all the other members of the Labour Group thought so, or whether some of them were thinking about the additional financial allowances or the posh lunches following the Board meetings.

There was no battle over the directorships of the Manchester Ship Canal, perhaps because the leadership didn’t attempt to remove the existing right-wingers who were directors, but merely made six new appointments[33].

Labour’s manifesto was then formally adopted as council policy. And so the Labour Left was now officially in control, but well aware of the power of the Right to inflict damage by voting with the Tories and Liberals.

Summing Up
Although the years between 1979 and 1984 had been fraught with rows and expulsions, followed by NEC inquiries, reinstatements and then further expulsions, they were also very exciting times for the Left. Their gatherings in local pub meeting rooms, and meetings with activists in other cities, at which they discussed politics and tactics, engendered a great camaraderie. Local government had previously been dismissed by socialists as being only about ‘drains and dustbins’, but was now seen as a central part of the battle for socialism.

For the Labour Right those years were not exciting. They felt themselves to be in an impossible position in trying to do the best for Manchester’s citizens. They believed they had no alternative but to implement service cuts in response to the Tory government’s reductions in revenue support grant.

Bill Egerton, looking back, thinks he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be so influenced by Hard Right councillors, such as Ken Collis, Cliff Tomlinson and Colin Brierley. Ken Collis was vociferously anti-left, although, according to Bill, he had a ‘heart of gold’ when it came to Social Services. But he was very dominant in the Labour Group and was a difficult person to work with. All three of them were vociferously opposed to the Equal Opportunities Agenda and to gay men, but Bill says that even they now admit that “they were daft”.

Bill says that they were scrupulous about never supporting Tory or Lib Dem motions, but only moved amendments from their ‘moderate’ perspective (albeit knowing that the opposition would support them for their own political reasons). He saw the vote on the Lord Mayor issue as an opportunity to inflict a defeat on the Left without affecting policy. However, I think this is a case of ‘selective memory’ since the Right (including Bill himself) did vote for Liberal budgets in March 1985 (see chapter 2) and supported Tory amendments on Equal Opportunities issues (see chapter 5).


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Editor’s Comments

I have added the sub-headings. There are a few corrections from information provided by Eddy Newman and Pete Keenlyside when this chapter appeared online in 2012. Some bits that were in parentheses have been moved to footnotes where the over use of asides made it hard to follow the meaning of the sentences. There is a lot of detail about the numbers of voting, but actually because of the tightness of the votes, the numbers are important.


[1] The 10 districts of GM were (and still are) Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan.

[2] As the districts remained in control of waste collection, the co-ordination between collection and disposal caused administrative headaches for many years.

[3] Longsight was in Ardwick CLP. Its officers were Irene Cohen (Chair), Kath Robinson (Secretary), Hilda Bickley (Treasurer) and Nilofar Siddiqi (membership secretary).

[4] Kath Robinson was the secretary of the Women’s Council and Gladys Marino from Wythenshawe was the chair.

[5] Harold Lever: 1945-1950 MP for Manchester Exchange; 1950-1974 MP for Manchester Cheetham; 1974-1979 MP for Manchester Central. His brother, Leslie Lever, was MP for Manchester Ardwick 1950-1970, and was also Lord Mayor of Manchester from 1957-1958.

[6] In 1983, Joe Dean was elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Dean of Beswick.

[7] Editor’s note: No reference recorded for the two Benn quotes.

[8] Fred Balcombe was a 6ft 7in tall, Jewish, ex-army, self-made millionaire who represented Collegiate Church ward (the worst in the city in terms of housing). He was very likeable, but was resented for driving around in a Rolls Royce, particularly by councillor colleagues, such as Rachel Finkel, who represented a similar ward, but had to earn a living by machining all day.

[9] Hilary Wainwright. “A Tale of Two Parties”, Hogarth Press, 1987

[10] Corrected from Barlow Moor ward by Pete Keenlyside and other corrections in the same paragraph.

[11] Roy Grainger was a regular at the Red Lion pub in Withington and was often to be seen holding forth on the topic of the day to a group of acolytes.

[12] A supporter of the left-wing Tribune newspaper.

[13] The seven left-wingers who were already on the council (Frances Done, Peter Hildrew, Arnold Spencer, Val Stevens, Jeff Wilner, Dennis Barker and Bill Courteney) were joined by Alf Home, Pat Karney, Eddy Newman, Kath Robinson, Graham Stringer and John Wilson (previously on from 1971 to 1974). Allan Roberts, who was sympathetic to the Left, had been elected to parliament, but remained on the council until May 1980.

[14] The following information and quote from Eddy Newman was received after putting the draft of the chapter online in 2012.

[15] Workers from MCRC were Patrick Cornwell, Chris Sumner and Cath Crausby. David Mottram was the first Secretary of MCRC.

[16] At time of writing, 2011.

[17] Local pubs such as the Briton’s Protection and the Hare and Hounds had upstairs rooms that could be booked, free of charge, for meetings.

[18] The six newly elected councillors were Nick Harris, Kevan Lim, John Maguire, Graham Martin, John Nicholson and Andrew Thomas.

[19] He was Secretary of the Moss Side CLP and he later defected to the SDP.

[20] It is interesting to compare this with Graham Stringer’s arguments in 1987 (see chapter 11).

[21] Including Jim Bradley and Ken McKeown.

[22] later to be Lord Mayor

[23] The Clay Cross Councillors had attempted to resist the Tories’ 1971/72 Rent Act which would increase Council house rents by 50p a week, and they were subsequently imprisoned.

[24] later to be first Chair of the Council

[25] Bill Courteney, John McGuire and Graham Martin stood down in 1982 making just 15 sitting left-wingers. The 15 new ones were John Byrne, Val Dunn, Tom Egan, Joe Holly, Pete Keenlyside, Eileen Kelly, Peter Morrison, Veronica (Ronni) Myers, Phil Openshaw, Sheila Robertson (later Newman), Margaret Roff, Nilofar Siddiqi, Ken Strath, Chris Tucker, Niel Warren.

[26] The 5 new left-wingers were – Frank Booth, Keith Bradley, Basil Curley, Sam Darby, Marilyn Taylor. The 2 retiring were Peter Hildrew and Jeff Wilner.

[27] This company had been set up on commercial lines by Roger Done and his second wife Sylvia, to provide the Labour party with a cheap option for printing election leaflets. The company rented a temporary building on the Moss Side Industrial estate for a number of years. Editor’s note: for the time-being I have left this paragraph in, but it doesn’t seem to be of any relevance to the rest of the section, other than an interesting fact.

[28] The 10 new left-wingers elected were Margaret Ainsworth, Paul Clarke, John Clegg, Rhona Graham, Brian Harrison, David Heald, Helen Johnson, Richard Leese, Neil Litherland and Tony McCardell. Joe Holly had stood down and so the net gain was only nine (from 33 to 42).

[29] He was elected in June 1984 as Labour MEP for Greater Manchester Central (consisting of Manchester and Trafford)

[30] Cliff Hilditch was due to retire on 31 March, with a new director starting on 1 April, but for some reason this hadn’t happened (see chapter 4)

[31] Corrected from estate agent, according Pete Keenlyside

[32] At this point Helen Johnson was missing from the Council chamber, the maximum Labour Left vote was only 44.

[33] Previous directors remaining on – Dennis Barker, Gordon Conquest, Norman Finley, Bill Latham, Winnie Smith. New appointments – Keith Bradley, Jack Flanagan, Frances Done, Kevan Lim, Graham Stringer, Arnold Spencer.

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1 Response

  1. David Mottram says:

    Footnote 15 identifies me in error as secretary of Manchester Community Resource Centre. In 1982 I was, briefly, the secretary of the Manchester Anti-Cuts Committee, to which reference is also made in the text.

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