Earlier today I recorded a piece for a black media company about my impression of the ‘riots’ 30 years on. Firstly I corrected them. In my view they weren’t riots and they especially were not race riots. They were serious civil disturbances but only a hyper active media could give them the status of riots.
30 years ago I was already into my 6th year as a councillor and was chair of the housing committee. I had only represented the Liverpool 8 area for 1 year when my previous ward was split into two and half of it was put into the Dingle ward. My two colleagues and I were the first none Labour councillors in the area for decades – perhaps ever!
Inside L8 and indeed throughout all working class areas there were serious concerns about Thatcher and her monetary policy which was forcing mass unemployment ever higher even in a city like hours which had been used to high unemployment and casual labour. Factory after factory closed down taking 2 -3,000 jobs at a time with them. Budgets were being squeezed but it was the private sector that was taking the biggest unemployment hits.
In Liverpool the Militant tendency was beginning to stir into an organisation which 2 years later would take control of the council’s finances and cause problems that would not be eradicated for two decades.
What led to the riots?
- The overall economic and political problems outlined above.
- Heavy handed policing with the police very much an organisation that was ill informed about how to deal with minorities and at worse considering themselves as some sort of ‘army’ paid to keep civil society intact.
- A small number of people who were criminals and wanted to protect their patch.
As with later disturbances in Burnley and Oldham it is hard to say precisely what incident fanned the flames but the way that the police reacted to young black men in Parliament Street was a major immediate cause.
The disturbances were never supported by the vast majority of people who lived in the area. Yes they were concerned about unemployment and Thatcher. Yes they were concerned about the behaviour of the Police. However few in the community wanted civil disturbances and most were relieved when the Police retook ‘control’ of the streets.
For the first few months after the disturbances there was a feeling of hope in the air. ‘Tarzan’ Heseltine arrived and gave us the first Garden Festival and the restoration of the Docks. Archbishop Worlock and Bishop Sheppard started the redoubtable double act know popularly as ‘Fish and Chips’ because they were always together and always in the papers. But looking back now how much has really changed?
Liverpool 8 looks better. Its housing has undoubtedly improved. Its schools are new and better performing. Community relationships especially with the police are in a different league than they were. But in some ways that is all surface stuff. Look deeper and the reality is:
- Liverpool 8 is still one of the poorest areas in the country
- There is still post code discrimination against people with L8 post codes. Just see how few black faces there are working behind the counters in the city centre.
- It is still seen as a problem area with problem people rather than a place of hope and opportunity.
In the long term if we are not to see L8 as a ghetto in another 30 years we have to see that it is an area with a glass half full. It is:
- Close to the 110,000 jobs which our city centre possesses.
- Full of marvellous buildings and adjacent to many more such as the Anglican cathedral
- Full of vibrant communities composed of vibrant people
We need to work to fill that glass not moan about how empty it is.
But these are not just thoughts about L8. They are thoughts about all our deprived communities. In 2,000 the Labour Government told us that there were 3,000 problem neighbourhoods nationwide and that a very high proportion of social problems were contained within those neighbourhoods. They told us that the problems of those areas has built up over many years and would take many years to solve. Then 5 years later they changed the policy and programmes before they could begin to take effect.
Those 3,000 neighbourhoods including Toxteth still exist and unless we think very differently about them will continue to exist for many years to come.