It’s impossible to imagine now how endemic youth unemployment was between 1979 and 1983. In the Toxteth area of Liverpool, about 90% of the youth had no work. One survey in London estimated that 26% of young unemployed had contemplated suicide.
After 1979, there was a calamitous rise in unemployment – especially among the youth. In northern cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – a kind of dole culture took hold. You could be forgiven for thinking that not having a job was the norm while being in work was some kind of privilege.
Local authorities and trade unions funded unemployment centres. I recall the centre in Liverpool on Hardman Street with a pub attached at the back called The Flying Picket where you might bump into Alexei Sayle at the bar on some nights.
Some of these centres produced cheap newspapers for and by the unemployed. They would normally reflect the opinions of the dominant political group within the centre – often on the ultra-left.
Here are some examples – note the attack on the TUC for not doing enough for the unemployed. A common theme at the time was that the Labour Party and trade union leadership were sadly wanting in the face of the Thatcherite onslaught.
Paul Mooney popped the question to his girlfriend Terese Shortt when both of them – members of the Unemployed Workers Association – were going to lobby Thatcher on the Jobs Express. This was a train loaded with the unemployed that descended on the capital in late 1981.
The pair got a card from Tony Benn MP and Terese was selected with five others, out of the 400 protestors, to go and meet Thatcher and plead their case.
There was a dark humour among the unemployed under Thatcher – many knowing they would never, in all likelihood, work again. These were people thrown out of manufacturing jobs and facing a labour market that was unforgiving if you over 35 – let alone unwilling to up sticks.
Graduates couldn’t even find summer jobs in the early 80s as the unemployed competed for shop and bar work. Dole newspapers sprang up all over the north, Midlands and London. This one developed a game for the jobless called Monotony – a skit on Monopoly.
You’d have to be a certain age now to remember Ken Livingstone’s first political incarnation as leader of the GLC – the Greater London Council – in the early 1980s.
I was at college in Liverpool in the early 80s coming back to London for the holiday breaks. The Left in Liverpool and most of the north had what some might term a “workerist” perspective – it was all about class unity and trade unions. Ken and much of the London Left were more into a kind of identity politics or rainbow coalition approach. It was less about “the class” and more about building alliances of “oppressed” “minorities”.
He took up some causes that now are completely mainstreamed – women and LGBT rights in particular. It’s hard to believe but standing up in public and saying gay people should be treated equally in the early 80s was a one way ticket to being demonised in the tabloids. Attitudes on race were, needless to say, shocking by today’s standards.
Where Ken went a bit off piste from the point of view of this ex-workerist scribe was his associating with Irish Republicans and other groups whose political positions weren’t even necessarily on the left. And as a Trotskyist, I rolled my eyes as he invited Soviet representatives to County Hall (now a Marriott hotel near the London Eye but then the GLC HQ).
Where we all supported Ken was his decision to drape a huge banner across the front of County Hall with the current number of unemployed emblazoned across it. It was normally somewhere between three and four million. Official figures and our figures were always at a massive variance.
Thatcher eventually got her revenge by closing down London’s elected body, the GLC. There wouldn’t be another democratic body running London until the Blair government set up the GLA. And then guess who got elected mayor taking up where he had left off……Ken Livingstone!
Here’s the Daily Mail, then, fulminating against Ken for inviting a delegation from the Soviet Union.