Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Scouse Exception

As many of Labour's post-industrial heartlands drifted rightward, Liverpool remained solidly red. The reason is clear: working-class community organising.

Not a day goes by at the moment without revelations showing the cronyism and corruption at the very top of this Conservative government. As communities have been stripped of income, security, and hope, Tory donors and ministers’ mates have been on a feeding frenzy, gobbling up billions of pounds of public money in lucrative government contracts without competition or transparency. What the rest of us experience as a public health crisis has become a business opportunity for an elite few, with serious democratic accountability nowhere in sight.

It feels like the gap between those in power and the majority has never been wider. For decades, the state has been hollowed out by a process of privatisation and outsourcing which has produced a whole new layer of welfare profiteers. From hospital cleaning to care services, these corporate interests have embedded themselves in precisely the places most impacted by the pandemic. But it hasn’t only been there — from transport to utilities, and down to the most basic of council services, private interests, usually with close connections to government, have enriched themselves at the public’s expense.

This process happened in parallel to the deindustrialisation of much of our country, leaving deep scars on those communities left behind. One of the stories of the general election defeat was the collapse of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ stretching across the North and Midlands. Just as with the rusting of America’s industrial belt, it wasn’t just shipyards, pits, and steel mills that vanished from those communities under Thatcher’s rule; it was engineering centres of excellence and the manufacturing plants around them. As incomes declined and work became precarious, much of the pride and security that had once seemed the hallmark of these towns withered away.

With each job loss, every demolished factory, every closed community centre or library, the guide ropes that secured the Labour vote frayed and snapped as the collective confidence of communities gave way to despondency. The disconnect was a long time coming. It was partly offset at the 2017 general election — but had a devastating impact in 2019. Today, the Labour Party is left grappling with the conundrum of seemingly permanent Tory misrule.

How Liverpool Stayed Red

In Liverpool, however, the legacy of Thatcherism was the complete collapse of Tory support in the city. Today, not one Conservative sits on the city council, and there is only one Tory MP in the whole of Merseyside. Much of the culture that has sustained Liverpool’s red citadel can’t easily be replicated. Its fierce sense of independence and healthy suspicion of the billionaire-owned press is demonstrated by the 30-year city-wide boycott of Murdoch’s The Sun ‘newspaper’. But the way in which the city has retained and developed key social institutions and a strong sense of solidarity demands consideration.

At the last election, my Liverpool Walton constituency recorded 84.7 per cent of the vote for Labour. It had narrowly voted for Brexit in 2016, but this didn’t dent the Labour support base. Nor did the fact that it has similar demographics—in age, ethnicity, income, and qualifications—to the Red Wall seats Labour lost in 2019. Liverpool Walton, which stretches from the fringe of the city centre north towards the outer suburbs, bears all the scars of deindustrialisation. Nonetheless it has sustained a rich social fabric and sense of community that has acted as a buffer to stop the area sliding towards desperation and right-wing politics.

Illustration: Joanna Neborsky

The trade union tradition has survived despite a broader decline in membership and unprecedented attacks on workers’ rights to organise. The Casa Bar in the city centre marks the legacy of the Liverpool dockers’ dispute, in which 500 Liverpool dockers including my dad were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line. The spirit of solidarity and defiance which sustained that 27-month dispute lives on in the free advice services and support it provides to those who are struggling.

More recently, the RMT union’s industrial action to keep the guard on Merseyrail train services became a focal point for the labour movement, retaining overwhelming public support for a prolonged and successful programme of strike action. When two Merseyside fire stations were threatened with overnight closure, the Fire Brigades Union, local Labour Party members, and the wider community came together to defend essential services — and won.

Make no mistake, a decade of Tory austerity has taken an extremely harsh toll on Liverpool — a recent study found the city to be the hardest-hit by government cuts since 2010. Day in, day out, I see the human cost through the people who approach my constituency office for support. As key services have been stripped away, we’ve done our best to plug the gaps. But far too many gaps remain and people fall through them every day into poverty and destitution.

My office has worked closely with Vauxhall and Merseyside Law Centres to ensure people have access to justice, including within the social security system and on housing advice. Working in partnership with Liverpool Law Clinic, we provide free legal advice for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. The selfless public spirit of these solicitors should shame government ministers.

We teamed up with Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) to provide portable cassette kits for claimants to record their PIP assessments in order to challenge flawed and unjust decisions. It’s contemptible that it took sick and vulnerable people to document such personal difficulties to force the DWP to make these recordings part of the process.

This community spirit—and these examples are only a few among many—helped Walton resist the lurch to the right that has afflicted many areas like it across England and Wales. It isn’t just about culture, it’s about organising. Where successive governments have allowed our social fabric to be torn apart, or sacrificed the public good to private profit, ordinary people have stepped in and fought to maintain dignity for their neighbours, their workmates, and their class.

Communities Against Covid-19

The pandemic has provided more inspirational examples of communities rebuilding from the ruins that politicians and the market have left behind. The fight against food poverty before and during the pandemic has become a rallying point. From the L6 Centre in Everton to Fazakerley Community Federation—St Andrew’s Community Network, The Bridge Community Centre, the Walton Vale Community Hub and too many more to name—a network of local foodbanks, pantries, and breakfast clubs have kept struggling families afloat in the absence of a proper safety net.

There is also the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, a joint project between Liverpool and Everton supporters to fight food poverty. What started with three fans collecting tins in a wheelie bin outside pubs on matchdays now provides more than a third of all donations to the city’s foodbanks. When the government failed to provide essential protective equipment for frontline health and care workers at the beginning of the pandemic, Fans Supporting Foodbanks organised local PPE production.

This is not charity, but solidarity. And the distinction is well understood by those involved in organising the programme. As Dave Kelly, one of the founders, told Tribune recently,

I take great pride from the fact that, in ‘84 and ‘85, I belonged to a miners’ support group in Kirkby in Liverpool. As someone who works for Unite, I also spent two years collecting food for the Merseyside dockers during their dispute. Now, don’t you dare tell me that was charity. It’s solidarity, it’s about working-class communities showing solidarity with each other and helping each other in their hour of need.’

Illustration: Joanna Neborsky

No amount of voluntary or charitable work can or should replace the necessary properly-funded public services that give people real security; but without a competent or caring government to provide it, communities must organise collectively to close those gaps themselves. We want a change of government, but we can’t wait for it. Socialism demands more than ‘jam tomorrow’ — it demands organising today.

And this organising can come in many forms. Kitty’s Launderette, a worker’s co-op in the constituency that takes its name from washhouse pioneer Kitty Wilkinson, has been continuing her legacy by offering free laundry for those most in need. Meanwhile, HomeBaked, a co-operative bakery and community land trust, is another social enterprise that has been driving the revival of parts of the city that were starved of investment for decades. These worker-run initiatives provide a living, breathing example of how ‘regeneration’ doesn’t have to be hijacked by the interests of big developers and speculators, but can be delivered by and for the community.

And it isn’t only bread. Alongside such basic needs as food, housing, and clothing, the community is also coming forward to meet desires for cultural fulfilment. Dead Pigeon Gallery, a grassroots initiative that prioritises working-class artists in the pop-up gallery spaces it creates around the city, has twice had exhibitions in my office. Currently we are marking the 25th anniversary of the aforementioned docker’s dispute with a series of photographs taken to document events at the time. Rebuilding our communities in the wake of neglect is a struggle — but it must also be a way of giving people avenues of expression that capitalism denies them, and ways to live better and more creative lives.

It must also point the way towards a different kind of society. Battered by government cuts, local councils are finding new opportunities to build wealth locally, from insourcing services to supporting projects that shift the balance of ownership and control towards local people. The pandemic may have destroyed any remaining faith in the Tory mantra that the private sector is the most efficient way of delivering public services, but bold action by more innovative councils have shown that another way is possible.

Liverpool Council is working with Preston and our neighbours in the Wirral to establish a community bank that will serve the everyday financial needs of ordinary citizens, community groups, and local businesses. These examples point to the potential for new models of democratic economic self-management that can build resistance to the alienation and atomisation that neoliberalism has imposed upon us.

Tired of waiting for Westminster, people across the country have stepped up in the toughest of times to provide their own solutions. There have been many years of attacks from on-high, and more will likely come — but as labour journalist Jane McAlevey writes, ‘the working class builds cells for its own defence.’ Our job on the Labour left is to support these initiatives which are springing up in defiance of a rapacious capitalism.

By rebuilding a sense of social solidarity we are laying the basis for a fairer and more sustainable society. To that end, the route to electoral success and a renewed sense of purpose for the Labour Party won’t be found by fixing our attention solely on the vagaries of opinion polls — but through building the collective strength within communities to meet the pressing needs that face our people every single day.