ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Liverpool Les oubliés des années travaillistes
by Bernard Duraud
Translated Sunday 9 May 2010, by Henry Crapoand reviewed by
The United Kingdom’s fourth largest city has slowly pulled out of the economic slump that resulted from de-industrialization in the Thatcher years. But lurking behind the flashy façades along the Waterfront still is an underside world of poverty and social inequality.
Since the turn of the millenium, Liverpool has changed. The city has moved far from the doldrums of dire poverty and the debilitating decline of a harbour that had once been the biggest in the world. The Waterfront along the river Mersey, which nostalgically boasts the prestigious ensigns of old shipping companies like Cunard’s, now flaunts imposing, renovated buildings, while some neighbourhoods have been granted World Heritage Site status . The EU has massively invested, no less than a billion euro, to revive the English North-Western city that is so near and yet so far from London. Even the city centre and its Met district, a temple dedicated to shopping and consumption as well as to the cult of Merseybeat, the musical trend that carried the Beatles to fame, would drive from memory that other, old history that hides behind the modern décor.
The offspring of the Thatcher-sponsored marriage between private capital and state incitements are the Albert Dock’s luxurious Lido and a complex of office and tenement buildings. Then over several miles along the Mersey’s banks stretches a metallic landscape of warehouses, cranes, and sheds. Harbour activity today is reduced to container traffic. “There were as many as 18,000 stevedores in 1964. There are 200 at most today. "Less labour is needed with the new technologies," says Terry Teague, one of the main union leaders of the dockers’ late-nineties lock-out .
The strong, persistent solidarity between former stevedores and many activists and social actors are commensurate with the vast disappointment that has spread over Liverpool, its workers and middle classes after Labour’s thirteen-year stint in power. They had been promised a “bit of a boost”, but the mirage of prosperity that drew triumphant smiles on Tony Blair’s face never came anywhere near the city. Despite it being an archetypal Labour stronghold. It is no wonder therefore if an increasing share of the local electorate has abstained in the recent elections. Hardly 40% took part in the 2005 general election.
Tony Mulhearn, who in 1980 was a left-wing Labour councillor in the fiery years when Thatcher had been set on forcefully depriving the city of all its money for five years on end, is familiar with the prevalent distress. According to him, “there just is nothing! Thirty thousand people are waiting for public housing. But the town council will have no public housing built. There are few jobs outside the town-centre’s services. Whole neighbourhoods are vast dumps of poverty.”
In Walton’s old streets, north of Liverpool, house prices have jumped, and in some places unemployment is sometimes above 25%, against Liverpool’s official average of 10%. The local picture of massively prevalent and unrelieved disillusionment is a far cry from Labour’s “meritocratic” vision, supposed to bring the magic formula to those who tried hard enough. In Walton, where militant activism has crystallized, half the electorate is thought to be unlikely to vote. Daren Ireland, a candidate for TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition), points out the gravity of the situation. “People here have been disenchanted by broken promises. London is too far away. And for a country that is supposed to be one of the richest in the world, there is a sad lack of investment in the basic services we need, like education and health. The political agenda has no provision for employment. The Lib-Dem majority on the city council has privatized public services like never before by subcontracting them to private businesses, with the result that working conditions have deteriorated and wages have been cut.”
In the maze of streets through which he takes us, a majority of the children do not attend school. The heroin trade takes place at night now that street lighting has been vandalized. Stolen cars become carcasses after night rodeos in the side streets. Gangs are rife. Conflicts between neighbours, broken window-panes fenced off with wire netting, housebreaking, defects in the buildings… “the only solution would be to raze everything and start building all over again,” sighs Steve Owen, a postman.
The real degree of poverty in this district, or in Liverpool as everywhere else in Great Britain is hard to assess. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that inequalities are now greater in Great Britain than in 1997 when Labour came into office. The country’s 1% richest hold 13% of the national wealth. The 10% most affluent own a hundred times more wealth than the 10% poorest. This unequal structure appears in all the figures, whether for health, qualification and the situation on the job market. Poverty among children, which Blair had promised to root out, is still a plague, one third of single women are out of work. Not to mention all the people that lost their jobs ten or twenty years ago and are still jobless or have been declared unfit for work.
Young people pay a heavy tribute to the crisis. “The pressure on them is inordinate,” says Paul who has been in charge of delinquents on parole for twenty-five years. “High performance is required of them and this can lead to personal failure, whether material or mental, while there are no or only few social structures to help them.” Drugs (cocaine, heroin), gang violence, domestic violence are Paul’s daily environment at work. His office is north of Liverpool. He tries to "develop empathy" for those whom he considers to be victims, in order that they give "their utmost capacity for solving their problems“. An arduous, long-term task, which cannot be quantified. But "relapse," he vouches, "is rare; only a few cases are blown up out of all proportion and hit the headlines."
Diana Raby, a professor at Liverpool University, takes a lucid view of her city. "It is true that in ten years Liverpool has changed a lot. But in the popular neighbourhoods, mine in particular, in Garston-Speke-Halewood around the airport and harbour industry, people live on incomes that are half the national average. The impact of inequality makes itself felt in everything.” Diana, a militant that has taken an active part in the campaigns against the war with the “Stop the War Coalition”, will be a candidate in this constituency for George Galloway’s Respect Party. Beyond its buoyant leader, Respect has drawn to itself all the disenchanted at the left-wing end of the political spectrum.
Its motto is: social justice, so as not to leave any Liverpudlians by the roadside.