‘Better to Break the Law, Than to Break the Poor’ - Militant Myth or History Repeated.
As recently as January 2020, in the new podcast ‘The Brink’, leading Militant supporters from the 1980’s continue to pedal myths about how Liverpool Council’s actions during the 1985 Budget Crisis were in the historic tradition of the Poplar Councillors of the 1920’s. But, what were the comparisons, if any?
In 1921, Poplar Council (now Tower Hamlets) refused to collect the rates precept which should have been passed on to the cross- London authorities like the London County Council.
The London County Council responded by taking them to Court, and 30 Labour councillors, including George Lansbury, a future leader of the Labour Party, were sent to prison indefinitely.
After massive public protests rallying under the banner ‘ It is better to break the law than break the poor’, the Tory Government were forced to retreat and the Poplar Councillors were released after just 6 weeks in prison.
In the mid- 1980’s, 15 local authorities campaigned for ‘not setting a rate’ but in the end Liverpool and Lambeth delayed the longest with Liverpool setting a legal budget on the 14th June 1985 and Lambeth setting a rate on the 3 July 1985.
Subsequently in September 1985, 47 Liverpool Labour Councillors were surcharged £106,0000 and disqualified from office - not for setting ‘an illegal’ budget as Militant myth would have it - but for the ‘ delay in setting a rate’ as a result of a gross political miscalculation by the councillors who the year before had set the rate on 9th July 1984.
Shortly afterwards, the 47 Labour Councillors received formal warnings from the District Auditor that they would receive further surcharges if they did not take action to balance their ‘deficit’ budget agreed on the 14 June. Therefore on the 21st September 1985, the Council issued all Council employees with Redundancy Notices which immediately ‘balanced’ their budget transferring the 47’s financial liabilities on to the backs of its workforce.
After massive pressure from the council workforce and the national trade unions, the City Council amended its budget in November 1985 with the aid of a £30m loan and finally withdrew the redundancy notices.
As Tony Mulhearn & Peter Taafe say in ‘Liverpool, the City that Dared to Fight’ it was never the Liverpool Councillors strategy to break the law; their strategy ‘was first to delay making a rate until 14 June, then temporarily to adopt a deficit budget to gain more time for the campaign for extra resources.....(and).... its fall back policy, under consideration since August, of raising loans from the private sector on the basis of deferred purchase schemes and a small element of capitalisation, which ensured that no redundancies would be necessary’.
The slogan ‘Better to Break the Law, Than Break the Poor’ was never Labour Council policy and did not feature prominently on any of the mass demonstrations in Liverpool.
We have always sympathised with the majority of the 47 Labour Councillors surcharged for the delay in setting a rate as they were set-up and victimised by Thatcher’s Tory Government. However, it is a gross exaggeration to say that that this was in the historic traditions of the Poplar Councillors who broke the law to defend their council workforce, while Liverpool Labour Councillors led into a financial cul de sac by Militant hubris, ultimately turned against it’s workforce by issuing redundancy notices.
Friedel Buecking, Sculptor