Below is the text of the speech made by Eddie Loyden, the then Labour MP for Liverpool Garston, in the House of Commons on 18 November 1985.
A moment ago, I saw the Secretary of State for the Environment in the Chamber. I would have thought that he would have stayed to hear what I consider to be an important and urgent debate. I hope that he will return to hear it, because I wished to present my case to him. No doubt he will read with great interest much of what has been said today by my hon. Friends. I hope that, at the meeting tomorrow, he will begin to recognise the problems of Merseyside, and especially those of Liverpool.
The problems of Liverpool in particular and Merseyside in general did not begin with the election of a Labour council in 1983. I was born in Liverpool in 1923 in the heart of the slums of that city. During all my life there I experienced, worked and lived with and went to school in abject poverty and misery. Throughout that period, Liverpool city council was in the hands of the Tories, and that remained the position until the late post-war period.
The wealth of the city was built on the ports—on commerce, shipbuilding and ship repairing—and the merchant princes and shipowners built massive monuments to the prosperity that accrued to them. Those monuments are still to be seen in the form of Liverpool pierhead, William Brown street, the Walker art gallery and George’s hall. There are many monuments to the prosperity that was brought about by the working classes of Liverpool. Those buildings and monuments, beautiful though some of them are, overlooked—as they still overlook—some of the worst slums in western Europe.
The people lived in the slums, in rat-infested properties, in cellars and in basements. Anybody who wants to learn the history of Liverpool need only read the reports of the medical officers of health for those years, with details of the infantile mortality rates, at one time the highest in the nation. One reads of the number of deaths between birth and fifteen, of the disease-ridden areas where children who survived had to be strong indeed. The weak went under. The hearse was a daily visitor through the cobbled streets of Liverpool taking away children who died from malnutrition and the diseases that were rampant in the city at that time.
They were the worst possible conditions that human beings ever suffered, yet that was at the heart of great prosperity in a great port. The working class of Merseyside and Liverpool did not benefit from that greatness. There were large armies of unskilled casual labour in the docks, with 20,000–plus men going out every day trying to earn a living, working one day and being unemployed the next. In shipbuilding and ship repairing, the same state of affairs existed, with men working part-time, trying to feed their families on the pittance that they were paid.
I was part of that. My first job on leaving school was in a boot warehouse in Scotland road. I received the princely sum of 6s 6d a week, which went towards the budget of my family. I was one of the many thousands of kids in Liverpool who were in the same position. When I went to sea at the age of 14½, I found an even worse world among the seamen. They were living in absolutely dreadful conditions, yet many Liverpool people had to find their living by going to sea.
That is the backcloth to the city of Liverpool. Remember, I am talking not of a thousand years ago or even of the Victorian era. The slums were there long after the war. I recall the misery of the courts, with 12 people to a court, with one tap and one lavatory at the end of each court for that number of people. That was the extent of disregard that the Tory council and Tory Government had for the working class of that and many other cities.
After the war, Liverpool had high hopes for the future as the slums began to be cleared and industries came to Liverpool and Merseyside. A new dawn had broken, in the view of the people of the city. But over the years, running into the 1970s, we saw the role played by the Liberal party, with an era of hung councils, Tory-Liberal administrations and one financial cut after another, all against a backcloth of poverty, misery and rising unemployment. They, too, have a clear responsibility for the situation in Merseyside, especially in Liverpool. Their targets, pitched so low were at fault. Not a single public sector house was built in the four years when the Liberal party was in office. The Liberal council had no regard for the misery and poverty of the people. It was rightly kicked out, to bring in a council that was prepared to do something.
I am not suggesting that the whole post-war housing development was the fault of the Liberals. There were faults long before then. People were condemned to live in the misery of high-rise flats and houses unfit for families to be reared in. The then Government contributed to those conditions. In the 1970s, the Liberals saw even more clearly than the Tories that it was a case of cutting the rates in a city that needed more public and private investment. They disregarded that, and they paid the penalty.
In 1983, the Labour party came to power. It was prepared to tackle those problems, many of them for the first time. Labour councillors began to tackle the problems of the housing estates and high-rise flats. They began to put parks in working-class areas where they were needed and where they had not been before. They built sports centres in working class areas where people had never seen such centres. Those acts are now judged criminal. The retention in work of people who are not prepared to be added to the lengthening dole queues in Liverpool is regarded as a criminal act.
The leader of Liverpool city council, who is a Quaker and who would not offend the law under any circumstances, has been pressed by the Government’s actions into a position where he is called a criminal in the technical sense of the word. It is a scandal and a shame that honest and decent men in Liverpool fighting against the ongoing decline of the city and trying to push back the barriers of poverty and misery are condemned as criminals by the Government.
The final push that moved Liverpool to the brink was made by the Government. They have the main responsibility. This country is still wealthy. The 500,000 people who live in Liverpool are British citizens—they are not an alien force. They are part of the United Kingdom and are therefore the Government’s responsibility. The Secretary of State and the Government cannot stand aside and see Liverpool swinging in the air waiting for someone to cut the rope so that it can drop. Neither can Liverpool be seen in isolation.
The city is a microcosm of what is happening in all our major cities, especially the old industrial cities in the northern regions. If no immediate action is taken, this country will reap a whirlwind that we have not seen in this or in previous centuries.
Recent statements have been made in the Stonefrost report and by the Secretary of State. Usually, the Secretary of State conducts his dialogue about 240 miles away from Liverpool. He has never attempted to meet councillors around the table to discuss the problems. He has not attempted to recognise the enormity and seriousness of the crisis in the city.
No Government have the right to disregard the plight of a major city and its population as this Government are doing. Whatever the council does—if it fiddles around with its budget and increases rates by 15 per cent. or, in reality 24 per cent.— commerce and industry are threatening that they will fold up their tents and go if rents rise in Liverpool. On numerous occasions they have said that the margin upon which they work will become intolerable and they will go away.
Do the Government want to conduct a vendetta against the people on Liverpool city council, the majority of whom are not members of Militant Tendency but Labour party members? They are youthful and dynamic and want to tackle the city’s problems. Are the Government waiting for the city to surrender to them and to the Secretary of State because they do not like the faces or the behaviour of some of the people? That is infantile behaviour, which is not expected of a Secretary of State—even a Tory Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State must recognise that the problem will not go away. The crisis will be there tomorrow and the next day unless the Government intervene and say that they will have discussions with the Labour-controlled city council to enable the city to continue the good work that it has been doing to ease tension where tension has been growing. It has done everything it can to relieve those tensions. We all say that we are worried about inner cities and about what we have seen over the past two years or longer. Tension arises from the conditions in which people live.
The city has remained the same throughout two world wars. It has always had double the level of national unemployment. That is the story of Liverpool to which the Government and the Secretary of State must listen. No Government can disregard the need for intervention to put the city on its feet and enable the council to do its necessary job.