1987: A Terrible Year

Labour lost 9 council seats in the May 1987 local elections. Budget decisions were made for 1987/88 in the optimistic hope that a Labour government would win a general election, but when this was called in June 1987, Thatcher disappointingly won a third term. Further resignations of Left councillors and then subsequent loss of 2 more seats in by-elections in August 1987 eroded the Left’s balance of power. A strategy change was championed by Graham Stringer trying to balance making the required cuts with protecting jobs and services. This chapter gives an insight into the machinery of local politics, how critical the numbers can be and how difficult it was trying to implement a left-wing agenda when the country was controlled by a right-wing government. It also goes into a lot of detail about divisions within the local Labour Party and the relationship between the City Party and the Council Labour Group.
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Leading up to 1987
1987 is remembered nationally for the terrible and unexpected winter storms, as well as for a financial crisis, but for Labour activists it is remembered for our third successive general electoral defeat, and additionally for us older Manchester Labour activists, for our disastrous local election results.

In Manchester, the loose coalition that made up the Labour Left was becoming increasingly strained under the pressure of trying to change the culture of the large bureaucracy that was the City Council, whilst maintaining jobs and services. But none of this strain would have been obvious to those outside the Labour Party, because a lot of positive publicity was generated on the Left’s achievements, including a full-colour booklet produced by the City Council – ‘City Report 1987’- which gave comprehensive information (and lots of photographs) about all the activities of the Council and a positive spin on the achievements of the previous two years.

The pressures from a hostile government and press also took its toll on the morale of councillors and activists. The personal relationship between Graham Stringer (Council Leader) and John Nicholson (Deputy Leader), which had never been good, was deteriorating rapidly into open hostility. These two personified the different strands within the Left – Graham wanting to mitigate the worst effects of Tory government policies and hang on to power until a Labour government could come to the rescue, and John wanting to adopt confrontational tactics to bring down the Tory government.

Late in 1986, John Nicholson had sent a letter to the City Party Executive Committee (EC) stating his intention to resign at the time of the General Election (which was expected in 1987). His reasons were partly personal, but he had also become increasingly frustrated by his inability to affect the political direction of the Council. Graham had demanded that he resign immediately, but when this was put to the vote at the EC, it wasn’t agreed.

1987/88 Budget Preparation
The preparations for the 1987/88 budget and the level of cuts that were going to be needed to get the budget to balance caused even more tensions within the Labour Group. At the Council meeting in December 1986, the District Auditor commented in his report on the previous three years’ budgets[1] and issued a warning about the consequences of continued use of reserves and creative accounting techniques to balance the budget, whilst at the same time highlighting the benefits of these measures.

Despite his warnings, the District Auditor was very complimentary towards the City Treasurer:

“But for the skill and ingenuity of the City Treasurer and his staff in devising methods of creative accounting, Block Grant entitlement would have already ceased. There is no doubt that these initiatives have been of considerable short term benefit to the council. They have enabled successive budgets to be balanced within the council’s strategic policies without exceptional rate or rent increases and they have minimised the level of penalties incurred under the Block Grant system”.

He pointed out that the repayments on the deferred purchase schemes – due to begin in April 1989, for 7 years – would increase the Council’s debts by £100 million and count against the Council’s permitted total for capital payments and would thus reduce the future capital programme.

His final comment that

“… special funds can only be used once and are not a solution to recurring expenditure”

was well understood, but the Left administration was hoping for an incoming Labour government and a more sympathetic financial climate.

The City Treasurer had warned councillors that

“The expediency of further leasing helps initially to reduce expenditure, but members are aware that by this approach [with payment of interest] the council pays more in the long run”.

Even though there would be more than ten years of interest payments on the various loans and schemes, the Left administration reckoned that by keeping the expenditure close to the government’s target, the amounts of Block Grant from the government would far outweigh those extra payments. It would be interesting to know if, over 20 years later, the interest paid did in fact total less than the amount received. But the alternative – to cut back all expenditure to the levels demanded by the Tory government – was unthinkable.

A further blow in January 1987 was the news that the government was introducing a Local Government Finance Bill to seek retrospective legislation to validate the decisions the government had taken in 1981/82 and which, at the time, had been adjudged to be against the law. This new bill would also enable the Secretary of State to specify what constituted revenue expenditure and what capital. Effectively, this would close all the loopholes that the Left had exploited so well.

The government had also issued a green paper (‘Paying for Local Government’) which proposed a change from the rating system to a ‘Community Charge’ (commonly referred to as the Poll Tax charged per adult rather than by property). The Council obviously expressed opposition to this as a retrograde step (a mild statement with the benefit of hindsight).

The 1987/88 Grant Related Expenditure (GRE) specified for Manchester by the government was £272.9 million – an increase of £10.6 milllion (4%) on the previous year – but the base budget projections were for an expenditure of £406.3 million, which would mean no Block Grant at all – a dire prospect.

The City Treasurer recommended a close scrutiny of all estimates of expenditure, with a plan of cutting £110 million. What was eventually proposed by the Labour Group was a package of cuts amounting to £95 million, with further use of creative accountancy measures and a 21% rate rise (see below) to balance the budget.

At the rate setting Council meeting on 30th March 1987, there were the expected alternative budgets put forward by the Tories and Liberals, but also an alternative budget put by the Labour Right. When the final budget proposals were put by the Left administration, there were 35 votes against and 3 abstentions (John Nicholson, John Byrne and John Smith[2]). John Nicholson and John Byrne were disciplined for this and a press release issued (see below). This was a pre-emptive strike by the Labour Group officers as the normal procedure should have been for the whips to interview councillors not supporting the Labour Group position (as happened for the right-wingers who voted against the whip).

Press release:

“The leadership of the Labour Group on Manchester City Council decided at a meeting on 7th April 1987 to recommend to the full Labour Group meeting on 14 April, that Cllrs John Nicholson and John Byrne be removed from their positions of responsibility within the Labour Group and the City Council. This follows their failure to vote in line with Labour Party policy at the Rates meeting of Manchester City Council. If the Labour Group agrees these recommendations they will be passed by the City Council on 15th April. There will be no further comment from the Labour Group officers.”

To have issued a press release prior to the decision being made formally is unprecedented and what I find very strange is that there is no reference to this disciplinary action against John Nicholson or John Byrne in the minutes of the City Party’s EC meeting on 24th April; just routine business was discussed.

May 1987 Election and Allocation of Committee Places
The rallying cry of “no more budget cuts” had unified the different factions of Manchester’s Left in opposition to the budget cuts made by the Labour Right between 1980 and 1984 (following the Tory government’s cut of Local Government Rate Support Grant and the Rates Act which capped (limited) the level at which councils could set their local rates). With the level of cuts that were being implemented by the Left, that unification of the different factions was destined to be split.

In retrospect, the cuts made by the Labour Right prior to 1984 had been fairly cosmetic rather than substantial. They had made the minimum level of cuts they could because they were trying to keep services running as well. According to John Nicholson, neither the Right nor the Left realised the level of slack there was in the budget at that time.

The tragic irony is that it was actually the Left who had to oversee the largest and most devastating cuts over the 13 years after 1984.

The May 1987 local elections in Manchester were disastrous for the Labour administration. Nine seats were lost – six of them to the Tories, one to the newly formed SDP, and two to the Liberals. The combination of the high rate rise (21%) announced just before the election, support for Viraj Mendis (see chapter 2) and other asylum seekers, and the policies on gay equality (which were all emphasised by the opposition parties, with ample anti-council material from the Manchester Evening News) caused a massive downturn in public support.

Eight[3] of the nine seats lost were from the Left majority group, but there were also three key left-wingers who had previously decided to stand down in May (Val Stevens, Sheila Newman and John Wilson). The losses were slightly mitigated by a gain of a seat in Crumpsall, won by Val Edwards (see chapter 15) making a net reduction of ten for the Left administration.

The composition of the Council was at that point 76 Labour (48 on the Left), 13 Tory, 9 Liberal/SDP and one vacancy, leaving the Left with no overall majority and dependent on the Labour Right not voting against them in Council. A by-election for the vacancy was held shortly afterwards and a left-wing Labour woman (Mary Kelly) was elected, bringing the Left’s number up to 49 – still not an overall majority of the total of 99 councillors.

At the Council AGM in May 1987[4], the Town Clerk reported receipt of a letter of resignation from John Nicholson dated 6th May. John had carefully planned the timing of the submission of his resignation (from his Rusholme seat) so that the by-election would coincide with the General Election (to be called imminently) and thus maximise the chances of getting Yomi Mambu re-elected (an increase in turnout for a General Election was known to advantage Labour). He took a gamble that he’d got the right day, since the General Election date would not be known until later (it was 11th June eventually).

Many of the Left were furious about John not following the convention on resignations (sending an undated official letter of resignation to the City Party EC so that the Party could decide the best time to call the by-election) but John had made his intentions known previously (and in writing) and was not prepared to carry on in the intolerable situation for any longer than necessary.

His resignation at that point reduced the Left’s votes to 48. Given the weakness of the Labour Left’s voting strength on the Council, the Labour Right tried to capitalise on the situation and get back the right to be allocated committee places for the six right-wing councillors who had continually voted against the Labour Group majority decisions. An amendment was moved (by the opposition, but supported by the Labour Right) to the recommendations from the Nomination Sub-committee – to allow every member to be allocated a Committee place.

Their amendment was carried (45 for, 44 against). The Left should have been able to defeat this with their 48 votes, but Norman Finley and Keith Barnes didn’t vote, and Kevan Lim voted for the amendment (maybe from a sense of fair play or maybe still trying to keep in with the Right), as did Mary Kelly (by mistake).

An adjournment was called to ‘check voting records’ (ie bring people back into line and explain to Mary Kelly how she should have voted). Then the substantive motion (ie including the amendment) was put, and, as expected was defeated. But this meant that they were left with no recommendation on who should be on what committees, so a second adjournment would have had to be called in order to re-calculate all the committee places. Eventually it was decided to leave it until after lunch and carry on with the other business.

After lunch – a motion was put by leadership that the constitution of each committee would remain as recommended by the Nomination Sub-committee. An amendment to this was then put, to increase the membership of the Policy and Resources Committee from 21 to 25, but this was lost (no record of names or numbers). A further amendment was then put to increase the number of places by one on each of six committees (Direct Works, Housing, Neighbourhood Services, Planning, Policy and Resources, and Trading Services), but this was also lost. Then the substantive motion was put and carried, but again no named vote was recorded.

There then followed a whole raft of amendments on the composition of each individual committee – attempts by the right to replace individual left-wingers with their own, but all these amendments were lost.

So, after all this game-playing, the committee compositions were more or less as the Left had originally proposed. Having spent so long deciding who was to be on each committee, it was then agreed to cancel all committee meetings in the period leading up to the General Election, which had been called by Mrs Thatcher for 11th June 1987.

Effect of Third Term of a Thatcher Tory Government
The General Election in June resulted in another national defeat for Labour. This was a terrible blow to the Left in Manchester (as to other Labour-controlled councils). They had been fairly optimistic that a Labour government would be elected, because of the spectacularly good local election results in May 1986 (see chapter 2), and would rescue the Council from having to implement the raft of Tory policies that were certain to have a devastating effect on local government services.

John Nicholson’s tactic had proved to be successful in Rusholme as the increased turn-out for the General Election led to a Labour win in the ward and Yomi Mambu was elected back on to the Council, making the Left’s voting strength back up to 49.

Against the national trend, Labour had won the Withington Parliamentary seat, making Keith Bradley a new MP, but because of the small majority the Left then had on the Council, he remained as a councillor until the time was judged to be right for a by-election (see later).

At the Policy and Resources Committee four days after the election, Labour’s programme for Manchester 1987 was adopted as policy, although there wasn’t much optimism that much of it would be implemented with a renewed Tory government in power.

Frances Done decided that she wouldn’t re-stand the following year, since a further four or five years under a Tory government were too horrible to contemplate. In the City Arms shortly after her decision, a council officer was overheard saying – “How will the council survive without Cllr Done?”

The meeting of the City Party Executive Committee that took place a week after the General Election was predictably wake-like and a Caucus[5] meeting was planned for the following Sunday to discuss the budget crisis and the strategy to be followed. But, out of the blue, it was reported that Keith Barnes and Neil Litherland had decided to resign, and wanted to go as soon as possible. Only a few people had known about their decision before the City Party EC and there was a lot of bitterness about this ‘desertion’ adding to the general gloom and doom everyone felt. But decisions had to be made about the best time to hold by-elections for these two seats (Northenden and Gorton North) and for Keith Bradley’s seat in Old Moat. No-one had the stomach for starting to campaign again so soon after the general election.

It was decided to hold the Northenden and Gorton North by-elections in August, but the decision on Old Moat was more problematical, since the seat was thought to be the most politically marginal of the three. There wasn’t the same urgency to fill the seat, because although Keith Bradley was now an MP, he could technically continue as a councillor for some time. However, it was thought that local Liberals would immediately start the legal process to force a by-election, or if they didn’t, the Returning Officer would ‘call’ it after six months and then the Party would only have five weeks to campaign. If Labour called the election, it could choose the best time and have more time to campaign, so it was agreed that Graham Stringer would officially call it for the second or third week in September and get the undated letter of resignation from Keith Bradley. However, after discussion with Party activists in Old Moat ward, who believed that the local Liberals wouldn’t have the resources to fight a third by-election, it was decided to keep Keith in place as a councillor and delay the Old Moat by-election until the following May when the normal elections would be taking place and there could be polling for two seats[6].

Also at that EC meeting in June 1987, plans were made for a Labour movement fact-finding delegation to Northern Ireland (some councillors, some City Party representatives and some trade union representatives), with a possible civic delegation following later. It is difficult now to understand how some people could have been thinking about such things in the midst of the political crisis they faced closer to home!

At the Caucus[5] meeting people were still in a sombre mood, but there was a stoical recognition that they couldn’t just walk away and give up. The dire situation had to be faced and a strategy for dealing with the budget had to be put together. The budget gap between the projected expenditure and the level at which it needed to be in order to avoid government penalties, was still more than £100 million. It didn’t seem possible that jobs and services could be defended. Manchester’s problem was thought to be almost unique in that there was literally no money in the reserves and there was very little scope left for further creative accounting measures. Only Islington’s problems came close to Manchester’s. It wasn’t going to be possible for the Council to avoid making cuts. If they stopped filling vacancies immediately, then it might be possible to avoid compulsory redundancies, but if they waited six or seven months, redundancies would be unavoidable.

The government’s planned legislative programme included swingeing changes in Housing and Education as well as the introduction of a community charge (poll tax) and compulsory competitive tendering (privatisation) which would affect all local government services. Labour Party members would have to make a decision about whether they wanted the current Labour administration to stay on in these circumstances (in effect to administer Tory cuts). The trade union leaders (and members) in the city were very clear that they wanted the administration to continue, as did the majority of Party members.

There was a suggestion that the Party should persuade the trade unions to mount an all-out strike in order to bring the government to the negotiating table, but this was dismissed as unrealistic. Employees couldn’t be pushed to go out on strike and unless all 40,000 employees did, it wouldn’t be effective. Some felt that what was needed was a campaign against the government and that key issues for campaigning should be identified with trade unions and all Party members involved, but this wasn’t seen as a realistic solution either.

In the end it was agreed that the Party would need to determine a strategy for the Council to follow and in order to do this, members would need information and some options to choose from. Meetings would be arranged for the CLPs and trade unions and information packs sent out to branches, with a special City Party meeting before the July Council to make the decision. Everything else was to be stopped as nothing else was more important than this.

An information strategy was put together by the Joint Policy Committee on 24th June. Papers for all Party members were to be produced by Frances Done, Pete Keenlyside and Cath Potter (Chair of the City Party at that time) and sent out as a contribution to the debate, together with a list of questions compiled from the different political perspectives of the Joint Policy Committee members. Specific people were allocated to take responsibility for distributing these papers within each CLP. A special meeting (for questions and discussion), open to all Party members in the city (Party cards to be shown as proof for admission) would be held on 8th July, with the decision-making meeting on 22nd July just for City Party delegates (and observers). To aid the decision-making, formal resolutions from CLPs were to be received by the City Party EC by a closing date of 20th July. The time-scale was incredibly tight, but everyone was very disciplined about the necessity to carry out as inclusive a process as possible, given the enormity of the task ahead.

Persuading the Party to Adopt a New Strategy
Graham Stringer attended meetings at every CLP and many trade union branches (including one in the Free Trade Hall, which was full) to explain the position. Graham said that he did nothing for six weeks apart from trying to convince Party members that they were not going to defeat the government; that the Council would have to look to private capital, European funding and central government money for extra resources; that the Party’s policies would have to change.

Some of the right-wing Labour councillors were continuing to cause problems by breaking the whip and voting with the Tories and Liberals and there were even rumours and speculation that they would break away from the Labour Party[7]. But these rumours proved to be unfounded.

On 20th July 1987, Graham Stringer prepared a paper for the City Party EC (extracts below)[8].

“Since 1984 Manchester City Council has improved services, created jobs and undertaken initiatives to make local government more relevant to the needs and aspirations of local people in the face of a hostile Tory government.

“The re-election of a Conservative government in June 1987 represents a major setback for the Labour Party … Manifesto said ‘Our policies can only properly work if Tory attacks are reversed and a Labour government elected which will restore jobs, services and self respect.’

Previous strategy:

“When the Conservatives were elected in 1979 the City Party argued that cuts should not be made and that rates should be increased in the short term to replace the rate support grant and housing subsidy stolen by the Tories. In the medium term an alliance of local and national trade unions, tenants groups and the non-statutory sector organisations should be formed in conjunction with the major Labour-controlled Councils to defy the government’s demands for cuts. The majority Labour Group [at that time] did not agree with the City Party and made cuts. There then followed the struggle for accountability of elected representatives to the Party policy…

“The alliance that had been envisaged in 1979 was put together in late 1984/early 1985, based on the tactic of not setting a rate. About 20 Councils agreed to the tactic, with the support of LP Conference and national Trade Union leadership. The tactic failed in Manchester and other Councils as some Labour Councillors deserted to the opposition…[9]

“The end of this campaign was characterised by bitter recrimination and by disqualification for Councillors in Lambeth and Liverpool. Attention was diverted from the real issues of local democracy and public services…

“In Manchester we have gone further down the creative accountancy path than any other Council, with the possible exception of Islington. … [these schemes] have meant that last year and the current year the government will pay the Council about £170M worth of rate support grant that otherwise would have been withheld.

[We have] now reached the final limits of the option of creative accountancy and the original stark choices have returned. There will be a gap of £110M in the budget in February if nothing is done now. There appear to be three broad options”

[The 3 options paraphrased:]

  1. Abdication by resigning seats or from positions of responsibility.
  2. Outright defiance by refusing to set a rate or entering into a deficit budget.
  3. Remain in power and use all the resources, imagination and ingenuity at our disposal to further the interests of the people we represent.

“Resigning and not fighting the subsequent by-elections would not be sanctioned by the National LP and would not be explicable to the disadvantaged groups Labour represents [who cannot resign from their situations]. Resigning and fighting by-elections would then result in exactly the same situation now faced.

“Defiance was the failed tactic tried in 1985. No other Labour Group in the country is considering this option. Trade Unions have rejected this option. No majority in council for this option. Government [is] unlikely to concede having just won a general election.

“Remaining in power will mean [making] cuts and unpleasant choices. But, will give access to considerable council resources to argue and organise against the Tory onslaught on local democracy.”

These options seem very similar to those set out by Jim Bradley and the right-wing in 1980 (see chapter 1) but, in anticipation of this accusation, Graham went on:

“Between 1980 and 1983, there was a local political alternative to cuts which was argued in detail by the Party at each budget time – such as increasing the rates and using more of the balances. There was a realistic expectation that a broad alliance of trade unions, Labour councils and community groups would defy and defeat the government. There is now no such expectation.

“The left would stay in power in order to defend front-line services, ensure manual and low-paid workers were not hit at the expense of others, and to ensure that the cuts were made on the basis of politically defined priorities and not on the basis of what is easiest for management to achieve.” [This was a crucial point].

He outlined a possible 2-3 year strategy for meeting the £110 million gap.

  • Rent increase of £2 in Autumn and the following Autumn – would raise £20 million
  • Losing 4,000 posts over 2 years (by non-filling of vacancies) – would save £30 million
  • Cuts in running costs (by not increasing for inflation) – would save £38 million
  • Increasing all services charges – £4 million
  • Selling things the Council does not need in order to generate capital receipts.

Graham warned that taking no action on the financial situation, but just campaigning, would lead to compulsory redundancies and a trebling of the loss of jobs. It would also lead to a change of control in the Council chamber and therefore leave no possibility of campaigning on the government’s proposals in the Queen’s speech. He argued that a campaign could only be launched if Labour remained in control of the Council. He also pointed out that since 1984 the Group had been through a number of crises caused by industrial disputes, leading to short-term tactics that prevented a long-term strategy. He argued for a five year strategy, working closely with the trade unions (to avoid futile internal disputes) in order to match the expected term of office of the Tory government.

City Party and Council Labour Group Tensions
On 22nd July 1987 there was the largest ever City Party meeting that anyone could remember, with around 185 delegates attending. Graham Stringer outlined his position (as above) and Frances Done made it clear that she thought there was still “loads of slack” within departmental budgets.

John Nicholson was apparently one of the first to shout ‘betrayal’. Another delegate described Graham as “the man who led the revolution and then led the counter-revolution”. Sam Darby accused him of ‘bottling out’. But in the event, only around 20 delegates voted against the new strategy.

Twelve long and detailed resolutions were debated (summary below of the points from all the resolutions that were carried) but the main issue resolved was that a balanced budget should be set for 1988/89, with the full involvement of in-house trade unions in determining this budget and monitoring its implementation. (My emphasis)

  • No compulsory redundancies in either statutory or non-statutory sector.
  • Consultation and scrutiny by the trade unions affected (by job losses).
  • Consider immediate freezing of vacancies, followed by selective recruitment to give the greatest possible protection of services.
  • Consider selective voluntary early retirement.
  • Reduction of posts should not be at expense of manual grades.
  • Priority to preserving posts responsible for service delivery.
  • Control the officer bureaucracy to ensure political priority given to services on which Manchester people depend.
  • Services should be concentrated on those most in need.
  • Continuation of present equal opportunities policy.
  • Apprentices and trainees should continue to be employed.
  • Continue with re-structuring of workforce and services in favour of previously disadvantaged groups.
  • Review capital and revenue budgets in light of new conditions.
  • Rent increase to be no higher than necessary to cover cost of service provision (Party policy). After all other avenues have been exhausted, rent increase in Autumn to be no more than £2.

Although Graham had managed to convince the majority, he confessed later to Ray King[10] that steering through what amounted to a spectacular U-turn, day after day, at a series of sullen ward Party and trade union branch meetings, was the most difficult five weeks of his life. He felt that if he’d not been able to carry the argument, he would have to resign as Leader (or be sacked). He believed it was the only way of carrying on a radical agenda since, if the Council had set an illegal budget, the councillors would have been disqualified (as in Liverpool), and all the radical policies would have gone.

The trade union negotiators for NALGO had made it clear that they wouldn’t co-operate with the cuts and staffing re-structuring unless the leadership gave a commitment to a ‘no compulsory redundancy’ policy and adopted a ‘50% rule’ – ie anyone whose job was disestablished could be re-deployed into a vacant post if 50% of it matched their current job. External recruitment was frozen and for a time there were a lot of ‘square pegs in round holes’.

But, in late July there were further signs of disunity within the Left. The City Party officers wrote formally to the Labour Group officers expressing their frustrations about not being involved in the ‘political’ decisions involved in implementing the cuts. They were concerned about the lack of consultation on neighbourhood offices and children’s centres and the sale of Council land. They referred to the number of rumours circulating and the lack of clarity about who was overseeing the service committees’ cuts proposals and who would be making decisions (and ironing out anomalies) during August (traditionally the municipal shut-down period). Some departments appeared to be operating a jobs freeze whilst others weren’t (eg Education were freezing all part-timers’ and youth workers’ contracts, but City Engineers were still filling posts). There were concerns about delayed decisions on apprenticeship posts – if they didn’t start recruiting on 15 August it would be too late for a college start. They insisted that chief officers should be given clear priorities for their departments and that the City Party working parties should monitor the cuts in departments.

A City Party delegation met with Graham Stringer to discuss the above concerns and received some assurances – viz – the Director of Personnel was in the process of producing a report for the Strategy Sub-committee meeting in September and if the City Engineer was offering any jobs, he would be sacked! Graham would write personally to the Chief Education Officer about part-timers and to the Director of Works (he shouldn’t be delaying the agreed 100 apprenticeships, although the suggested additional ones wouldn’t be recruited). The decision-makers over August were to be four of the Group officers (Val Dunn, Sam Darby, Tony and Shirley McCardell).

The two by-elections in August were both lost by Labour. Gorton South (Neil Litherland’s seat) was lost to the Liberals, and Northenden (Keith Barnes’ seat) was lost to the Tories, making the overall composition of the Council: Labour -75 (47 on the Left), Tory – 14, Lib/Alliance -10.

How to Impose Cuts Yet Protect Jobs?
In September there were three meetings of the Joint Policy Committee at which the tensions between the Party representatives and the Group representatives were palpable. The City Party representatives were unhappy with the Group’s handling of sensitive issues. One example cited was that the Town Clerk’s Department had sent a letter to voluntary sector management committees saying that they should withhold agreed wage rises. The Group officers agreed that this was a misinterpretation of the jobs freeze and that it would be rectified.

The jobs freeze that had been imposed (to save £30 million) was causing enormous problems. Chief Officers had been instructed to protect front-line services, but this conflicted with the imperative of not covering vacancies with overtime or temporary contracts. Also, front-line services in one department weren’t necessarily as high a political (or social) priority as in another department.

The Party representatives felt that all low-paid jobs (particularly those done by women) such as meals-on-wheels and work with mentally and physically disabled people should be considered as front-line services and that the implications of a jobs freeze on maternity leave should be considered. They were also concerned about the threat to the future of the Immigration Aid Unit (IAU), since four of the workers were on temporary contracts, due to end shortly. This was only a small unit, working on anti-deportation campaigns, but was politically sensitive and a resolution supporting the continuation of the IAU work had been passed at the City Party meeting. The Group officers were adamant that no decisions on unfreezing vacancies could be taken until the end of September and the IAU staff couldn’t be treated any differently from any other workers. They insisted that the budget for anti-deportation and immigration work was still available and the Equal Opportunities Labour Group was considering the best use of the money.

The Party representatives were completely dissatisfied with the Group’s responses on these issues, but failed to appreciate the real difficulties of the Group in managing an impossible situation. Another disappointment was that of the 111 apprenticeship posts offered (one area where a real difference was being made for young people) only 89 had been filled by the time of the freeze and so the rest of the vacancies would have to be frozen.

The Group representatives were concerned about the number of malicious rumours circulating amongst the workforce and were determined to get out proper explanations about the situation. They appealed for support from the trade unions and insisted that the positive things that the Labour Left had achieved in Manchester were not getting through (there were said to be at least 100 things that Manchester was best or second best at in the whole country).

At the third of the Joint Policy meetings (30th September) the Group leadership presented a proposed strategy (extract below) for discussion and a draft resolution for putting to the Policy and Resources Committee.

  1. All departments to be restructured and reduced by 3,750 jobs overall, to achieve around £40 million savings.
  2. Because of the Party decision to prioritise trainees and apprentices, some of the related jobs (eg technical and consultancy jobs in Direct Works) to be unfrozen.
  3. Posts which are 80-100% funded by other bodies (eg academic posts at the Polytechnic) to be unfrozen, but those with less than 80% external funding remain frozen.
  4. Income-generating posts to be unfrozen, preferably by redeployment.
  5. Immediate action to be taken on front-line services such as school road crossing wardens, meals-on-wheels staff, lunch-time supervisors, residential care staff for mentally disabled and elderly people, school transport for children with disabilities etc.
  6. The procedure for unfreezing any other posts to be for chair/deputy of each committee to present their priority lists to the Strategy Sub-committee which will have delegated powers to take urgent decisions.

Other points were included in the strategy and a very fraught discussion ensued. The Party representatives felt they were being presented with a fait accompli with no chance to consult Party members and with no chance to be involved in the decision-making. The Group leadership stressed that difficult decisions were going to have to be taken in the ensuing 5-10 weeks and that the Party side could realistically only set down general principles (as they had already in relation to low-paid workers, Equal Opportunities and fighting privatisation) for each department to follow. They stressed the importance of keeping the support of the trade unions and protecting services at the point of delivery, and undertook to make information available regularly to the Party on how things were going. At the end of the discussion, the Party side only agreed to the proposal in point 5 above.

Two major controversial issues (that would make major contributions to the budget reductions needed) were flagged up that would have to be discussed by the City Party – the sale of council-owned land and whether Voluntary Early Retirements with enhancements should be offered to help with the departmental re-structuring (redundancies had already been ruled out).

At the Policy and Resources Committee on 2nd October, the Tories and Liberals moved amendments to reduce the budgets for Police Monitoring and Neighbourhood Services. The Labour Right voted with them but that still only gave them a total of 43 votes, with 50 against, so the move didn’t succeed. It was also announced at this meeting that the Deputy Town Clerk (Allan Lewis) was resigning to take up the Chief Executive post at Trafford (which was Tory-controlled).

At the subsequent Council meeting, the Tory councillors (obviously invigorated by their party’s General Election victory) and the Liberals, moved a total of 24 amendments to the budget proposals in the Policy and Resources Committee minutes.

At a well-attended City Party meeting on 14th October (81 delegates and 18 observers), there was a full discussion on the financial situation which went on till 10pm. It was a very acrimonious meeting with personal attacks being made and lots of bad tempers. The Chair (Cath Potter) was heavily criticised for her handling of the meeting (see later), but it was a very difficult meeting to chair and debates were all going on too long for comfort.

There was an attempt to censure the Labour Group for lack of full support on Viraj Mendis[11] (ie insisting he would have to leave the sanctuary of the church in order to take up the job offered to him), but this was side-stepped by referring it to the following meeting.

It was finally agreed that there should be a special City Party meeting convened to hear full reports from the chairs of committees on the effect of the jobs freeze and a full discussion on front-line services (what they were and how they could be defended) and the Capital Programme.

Calling for a Democratic Forum
In the midst of all this angst and tension about the Council budget, the process for selecting candidates for the forthcoming local elections in May 1988 was rolling on with the usual amount of bickering and discontent from non-selected members and from some wards (eg Cheetham, which was always a source of voluble discontent), and with the same few members of the EC (including me) being called upon to attend shortlisting and selection meetings throughout the City and to begin the process of drafting the Manifesto.

The Party agreed that the Council should not seek ‘re-determination’ of the rates. This was a formal process whereby local authorities could go to the Secretary of State to ask for a recalculation of the Revenue Support Grant, but the consequence of doing this would be that the Secretary of State would then be able to impose conditions on the Council.

At the Joint Policy Committee meeting on 28th October, the rows and bad feeling continued with the Chair of the City Party being criticised for having allowed the motion of censure to be put at the end of the last City Party meeting, for allowing the personal attacks to be made during the debates and for not allowing anyone the right of reply at the end of each debate. The Group representatives said it wouldn’t be possible (ie too soon) for chairs of committees to give reports on the effects of the jobs freeze at the special City Party meeting, but that the Group officers would produce a progress report that could be sent out prior to the meeting.

When Frances Done reported on the relinquishment of the Council’s interest in (and the sale of land to) the Manchester Ship Canal, the Party representatives were upset that they hadn’t had any prior information about this. There were implications for Party funding from this decision since some of the Labour representatives on the Board donated their Directors’ fees to the Party. Graham Stringer explained that it wasn’t possible to tell anyone beforehand because that would have made it impossible to get a deal organised. The Council had no shares in the company and only controlled the Board because it had a majority of the directors. He said that the Council’s Board members had fought a hard battle in order to get the best possible deal for Manchester – which was £7 million in capital receipts (see chapter 24).

The relationships between those on the Left were becoming increasingly fractured with vociferous hostility being expressed by the so-called ‘sectarians’ (Militant Tendency, Socialist Organiser and Socialist Action) against the Group leadership.

Whilst the City Party officers did not support the views or tactics of the factions, they were concerned about the centralisation of decision-making and Graham Stringer’s style of leadership and apparent disregard for accountability. Maria Price (as Treasurer) and I (as Secretary) felt very uncomfortable about this, but didn’t want to align ourselves with the very vocally critical hard-left sectarian factions. So, we decided to convene a meeting to discuss a way forward that might keep the Left together. We circulated a leaflet (text below) by hand, to those members of the EC who were not part of any of the factions, and although we were aware that it would fall into their hands, hoped that they wouldn’t attend and disrupt the discussion. We also made it very clear that Graham shouldn’t attend.

Extract from leaflet circulated in October 1987

“We are very concerned at the disunity of the left in Manchester and the destructive attacks on the current administration by some factions. We feel it is important that the current administration stays in power and that the majority decisions of the City Party are carried out. We are inviting the non-sectarian left members of the EC who are similarly concerned to help us set up a cross-constituency, non-sectarian left forum to discuss a way forward, locally and nationally”.

At the first meeting (29th October), some terms of reference were agreed (see Appendix 11A below) and a large cross-city meeting was planned for 13th November – to be called the Democratic Forum. This meeting took place in the Briton’s Protection pub and Sorrel Brookes presented a paper highlighting the problems since the decision in July to make £110 million cuts.

Her paper stressed the fact that the Labour Group was only carrying out the decisions of the City Party, but that the Party had set very vague guidelines about maintaining front-line services, etc, and had given little or no guidance on how that should be done, other than involving both the Party and the trade unions. She pointed out that the Party would have to identify the level of involvement it wanted and be prepared to make difficult decisions, but also be prepared to absorb a lot of background information. But all of this would have to be done quickly, since the chief officers were already speedily restructuring departments and making cuts.

She put forward two options for moving forward, one of which was basically to ask the Labour Group to justify (politically) the decisions already taken regarding the restructuring and their basis for deciding priorities, for the Party to judge if this was acceptable or not. This option was rejected as it was felt it would open the way for more conflict between the Party and the Labour Group. The other option, which was eventually adopted, required Party members to draw up an order of priorities (between services) and determine a mechanism for decision-making and to be prepared to accept that any service being deemed high priority could result in another service being cut.

Although at the time, Sorrel felt that her thoughts were ‘only raw’, the paper shows the depth of thinking that was typical of those involved who were wrestling with the complexities of the situation. But it also shows the impossibly high expectations of what ordinary Party members could cope with in terms of involvement in decision-making.

A special City Party meeting was held on 18th November to deal with the raft of resolutions from CLPs about the cuts. It was attended by 88 delegates, 11 councillors and 24 observers (Party members with no voting rights) and was a very fraught meeting. The GMB delegation was out in full (a sure sign that Graham Stringer had rallied Dick Pickering[12] and his troops for support). The EC recommended a particular order for debating the resolutions and a lot of time was taken in debating this recommendation, which was eventually agreed.

There wasn’t time to debate and vote on all the motions, but of those that were voted on, the ones about delaying the departmental restructuring and implementation of cuts in order to fully discuss with the Party and the trade unions (ie the option the Democratic Forum had agreed was the way forward), were all defeated, although by a narrow margin.

The only two resolutions that were carried were from Blackley (Graham’s CLP) and the rest of the motions were deferred to the December City Party meeting.

Blackley CLP motions carried.

  1. “We call on the City Party EC to plan a one day conference before the December council meeting to enable the party to agree our priorities for spending, to discuss the restructuring exercise that is being undertaken, and to work out a campaigning strategy in response to forthcoming government legislation.”
  2. “This CLP reaffirms its commitment to neighbourhood services but because of the restrictions on the capital budget, would not wish to see the number of offices started at such a pace as to be at the expense of our deteriorating housing stock, and wish to see a fairer balance of cuts across the whole capital budget.”

The all-day Conference was held on Sunday 6th December, with information from Graham about forthcoming government legislation; comprehensive reports from each department (on their budgets and restructuring proposals) with the chair of each committee introducing and answering questions; workshops and plenary. It was open to all Party members in the city, but not a decision-making meeting, and it was not as well attended as the City Party meetings.

The decisions on the motions from CLPs were all taken at the City Party meeting on 9th December. This was another very acrimonious meeting and Militant Tendency supporters heckled continuously. One of their loud chants was “youth is angry” which presumably referred to some of the proposed cuts to youth projects. None of the motions about reversing cuts decisions were carried, but some motions supporting particular services (such as the re-housing service, community development workers and part-time front-line workers) were carried. Also carried was a motion condemning the Council’s failure to provide funding for the Immigration Aid Unit.

So at this point, none of the conflicts and tensions within the Party had been resolved and those on the Left who were generally supportive of the Labour Group leadership felt demoralised and excluded from the decision-making process and even more concerned about the autocratic leadership style being adopted by Graham Stringer. Attempts to create a forum for the non-sectarian Left to discuss alternative ways forward were abandoned and there were no further meetings of the Democratic Forum until November 1989 (see chapter 12).

Appendix 11A: Democratic Forum’s Terms of Reference
Meetings will be open to all those on the broad left of the Labour Party, with the exception of those in Militant and Socialist Organiser, who:

  • are willing to work within the framework of the policy agreed by the majority in July,
  • support the need to develop a political strategy for Manchester for the next 4-5 years based on open and honest discussion of the issues and problems, without “leaking” discussions to the press or others outside the forum,
  • support the principle of accountability of the Group to the City Party,
  • want to see the current administration remain in power (unless an alternative, credible, political strategy is formulated and agreed by a majority at City Party),
  • want to win political support amongst large sections of the population of Manchester,
  • want to discuss issues of socialist principles and policy.

Issues to be discussed

  • Restructuring of departments and breaking down Town Hall bureaucracy
  • How to tackle government’s proposals on housing, education, Poll Tax and Urban policy.
  • How to get the workforce behind the current administration. How to involve the trade unions and relationship with the private sector.

Other issues in no particular order for discussion: Tackling the centralisation of decision-making and current leadership style; How to organise locally against fascist and right-wing opposition; National political situation and the LP policy review; Where we are up to with our new policy initiatives; Dilemmas of being a council employee and also a party activist.

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Editor’s Comments

This was a difficult chapter to read and edit, because of what I feel is a fog of detail. The sub-headings were not in Kath’s original, I have added them where it felt a break would work. The editing has mostly been layout and typographical, although a few minor asides have been removed. Because the chapter is about a year and not one themed issue, it ends in what I feel is quite an abrupt way at the end of December 1987. This means it doesn’t work so well in this format as a standalone account and the reader will need to continue into the next chapter. I was hampered in formatting of the section that quotes the document from Graham Stringer as I do not have the source document. Kath had a tendency to add parentheses, which confuses what is quote and what is her addition. Also in this chapter there is mention of caucus meetings twice without explanation of that. I am adding a page specifically for this definition.


[1] 1984/85 – benefit of £7.6 million by rescheduling the debts from the General Rate Fund and the Housing fund. 1985/86 – benefit of £3 million from a leasing agreement for books; benefit of £16.4 million from the sale of council’s interest in mortgages; benefit of £100 million over 3 years from deferred purchases agreement. 1986/87 – benefit of £68.1 million by using £27.8 million from special funds to balance the budget. Without this, the Block Grant would have fallen from £86.8 million to £18.7 million and the rate increase would have been 55% rather than 5.5%.

[2] As John Smith was one of the Labour Right, this was a very strange vote. John Nicholson says that he, Sam Darby and John Clegg had got an agreement through the Labour Group that there would be no rent rise for council tenants, but this wasn’t agreed at Council. On the Tory budget, the Liberals and two of Labour’s right abstained (Findlow and Tomlinson). On the Liberal budget, the Tories voted for and two of Labour’s Right abstained (Findlow and Ford). On the Labour Right’s budget, 29 voted for (including Liberals), 59 voted against, 6 abstained (Tories). There was also a long statement from Town Clerk on the advantages and disadvantages of the proposal to transfer properties to the Manchester Mortgage Corporation (lease and lease back scheme).

[3] The nine Labour councillors lost were: Paul Clarke, Basil Curley, Mark Hackett, Yomi Mambu, Phil Openshaw, Marilyn Taylor, Chris Tucker and Bill Risby from the Left and Derek Shaw from the Right. Frank Booth was replaced by May Bullows, which had a nil effect on the overall number of left-wingers.

[4] Also at that Council meeting, congratulations were extended to Keith and Rhona Barnes on their marriage. Eileen Kelly was elected as Chair of Council (Lord Mayor) and Jack Flanagan as Deputy.

[5] See chapters 1 and 2 and definition page for more detail about caucus meetings.

[6] Arnold Spencer was later selected for this by-election as he had been de-selected by Moss Side ward. Old Moat ward party’s tactic was successful and Arnold won the by-election, which gave him continuity as a councillor.

[7] Letter from AUEW (Beswick 155E branch) 3 July 1987. “This branch is alarmed at the recent reports that a number of Manchester councillors, who have in the past voted with the Tories and Liberals in council, are now contemplating a breakaway from the Labour Group, with the aim of forming a new administration with the Tories and Liberals.”

[8] Editor’s note: hampered in formatting this as do not have the source document.

[9] Kath’s note: Using the term ‘desertion’ was hardly a fair reflection of the situation.

[10] ‘Detonation: Rebirth of a City’ by Ray King. Published by Clear Publications Limited, 2006

[11] See chapter 2, in particular Appendix 2E of that chapter.

[12] The GMB trade union leader (Dick Pickering – who was also the national president of the GMB) was a solid supporter (and personal friend) of Graham Stringer’s and could always be relied on to get all of the GMB delegates to the City Party to support Graham’s position on any policy matter.

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Further Reading

King, Ray; ‘Detonation: Rebirth of a City’, Clear Publications Limited; United Kingdom, 1 May 2006 (Link to Amazon)

Peck, Jamie; Ward, Kevin; edited by; ‘City of Revolution: Restructuring Manchester’, Manchester University Press, United Kingdom, 2002 (Link to Manchester University Press website)

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