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Liverpool: Speaking Out
a city on screen

The city makes its opinions felt

Main image of Speaking Out

Liverpool's reputation for militant politics, strikes and street protests goes back at least to the 18th century, when seamen rioted for higher wages and against press-gangs. The growth of the port in the 19th century created a large but casually-employed workforce of dockers, who shared some of the attitudes and popular image of the mariners. Bosses and trade unions alike found both groups hard to organise and control. The workers in turn made a virtue of their lack of job security and developed a culture of individualism and resistance to authority. Liverpool's industrial relations were often more vocal and confrontational than those of manufacturing towns with their strong, craft-based unions and paternalistic factory-owners.

Party politics in Liverpool also diverged from patterns evident in most British cities. A small, wealthy Liberal elite managed the port and its trade for much of the 19th century, but the day-to-day politics of the town were dominated by the religious divide between Protestant Toryism and Catholic Irish Nationalism. Demonstrations and rallies often descended into riots, especially in response to conflict in Ireland during the early 20th century. Tense relations between Liverpool's ethnic minority communities and the police led to the Toxteth riots of 1981, exposing the failure of the city's political classes to deal with urban blight and social division.

The peculiar political culture of the early 20th century meant that Labour was slow to develop as a major force, especially in comparison with other northern cities. Not until 1955 did the city council have a Labour majority for the first time. In the 1980s, the Militant Tendency's confrontation with both the Thatcher government and the national Labour Party continued Liverpool's tradition of political exceptionalism. The defeat of Militant and the disqualification of its councillors symbolised the shift of political power away from town halls and toward central government, and was also an important turning point for the Labour Party on the way to the creation of New Labour in the 1990s.

As a world port, Liverpool's local conflicts have often been linked with events elsewhere, and vice versa. Liverpudlians rioted against German shopkeepers when Lusitania was sunk by a U-boat in the Great War. The Spanish Civil War polarised opinion in 1930s Liverpool, with a range of left-wing organisations, including the Unity Theatre, agitating against fascism while far-right groups supported Franco and welcomed Oswald Mosley to Merseyside. The Mersey docks dispute of the 1990s sparked sympathy action in ports worldwide.

Attempts to diversify Liverpool's economy from the 1930s onward created a significant manufacturing sector on the outskirts, but the collapse of much of this in the 1980s recession added another set of negatives to the popular image of the city. Peripheral housing estates built to replace waterfront slums suffered from a lack of amenities and jobs, and rising crime rates. Dock work, finally decasualised after decades of struggle, was effectively abolished by the containerisation revolution. Yosser Hughes's mantra 'Gissa job' in Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982) summed up a time when Liverpool's old and new economies both failed at once, and when the current regeneration of the city would have seemed a hopeless fantasy.

Graeme Milne

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