Hidden virtues of loser-friendly Liverpool

Their dockers may have been on strike for the past 19 months, their city may be the poorest in the Kingdom but, says Paul Vallely, Liverpudli ans won't surrender their community and cultural identity

In front of the Royal Seaforth Docks an elegant woman in a Cossack hat, calf-length coat and long, cream scarf moves with utter composure along the road. She glides like a mysterious ghost among the slowly-moving juggernauts that are queuing to enter the Liverpool waterfront. Occasionally, as a lorry edges forward, she lifts her hand in an enigmatic movement and the driver comes once again to an uncertain halt. This is not most people's idea of a picket line.

The woman is Cathy Dwyer. She is dressed for work; after the mass picket she will be off to her job in market research. Her husband, Andy, has worked on the Liverpool docks for 33 years - or he had, until September 1995 when he was sacked for not crossing a picket line thrown up by fellow dockers whose firm had sacked them for refusing to work overtime. Since then Andy Dwyer has been locked out by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in a 19-month dispute that has now lasted longer even than the miners' strike of 1984-85. Yet newspapers do not write about it much. There is, you see, no modern media template for a dispute like this.

In many ways it seems like a throwback to something from the late Seventies. A macho management sets out to smash long-set union restrictive practices. Men atavistically down tools and are locked out. With suspicious speed their jobs are advertised and filled. Roadside altercations take place between pickets, blacklegs and police. Damage is done to directors' homes. Dockers travel the world to set up successful picket lines in New Jersey, Montreal and Australia. But it is not news. What place can all that have in the post-Thatcherite world of economic globalisation? It is merely the death throes of a dinosaur dispute in a dinosaur industry.

And, after all, it is Liverpool, the city that revelled in the worst labour record in the country throughout the Seventies and refused to bury the dead during its cemetery workers strike, which crowned the "winter of discontent" that brought down the last Labour government. The city which produced Derek Hatton's defiantly spendthrift Militant council in the Eighties.

But Cathy Dwyer seems to belong to another world. She is one of the Women of the Waterfront, dockers' wives who have come together to find a new solidarity in adversity. Yet it seems to be of the present rather than the past.

It is not just her sartorial style. Nor that, with laws on picketing now much tightened, she and her fellows have developed a chaotic, individualised, unco-ordinated form of mass jay-walking to achieve the same end. There is something more to Cathy Dwyer. She speaks of a mutuality that is alien to recent social discourse. "I don't think we're the last gasp of a dying era," she says. "I think that we're the beginning of a new one. We are showing a greedy nation that there are other values." She speaks of responsibilities as well as rights, of duties rather than demands, in what, in other circumstances, might be the speech of a New Labour politician.

Not that Tony Blair has been anywhere nearer than Albert Dock, a few miles down river, where the port's great trading days have been turned into a historical theme park. In its centre floats the weather map used in Granada TV's chat show, on which Blair met Richard and Judy. Picket lines are an embarrassment to New Labour, as they are to the dockers' union, the Transport and General, which has distanced itself from the dispute and branded it "unofficial".

Small wonder, with men like Kevin Robinson around. The shop steward was told that he suffered from "a pathological dislike for management per se" and was derecognised three times by the docks' management, only to be re-elected each time by the men. And yet Robinson seems to have something to complain about when he, and the women, talk about the changes in working conditions the management had begun to impose over the two years before the dispute began.

"Our husbands were on 12-hour shifts, and would then find themselves called back for another 12, just five hours after getting home," says Cathy Dwyer. "My husband was disciplined for not being by the phone on his day off," says another woman. "Messages would be left with the kids telling their dads to get back to work," adds a third.

The company denies this, saying such incidents were the exception rather than the rule. But whatever the realpolitik of the dispute, the sense of community among the dockers' families is remarkable. The spirit of loyalty goes vertically, too, through the generations.

At St Anthony's Catholic Church, just up the hill from the dockside, Fr Tom Williams is not an impartial observer. His father was a checker and a bargee on the docks. His brother Richard is one of the sacked dockers. "He never had a disciplinary offence against him in 28 years and now he is out on his ear," the priest says, with barely suppressed indignation. "It is a total injustice." Yet it is not one of merely recent manufacture. Its roots lie in the history of the area, which was once the most densely populated in Europe.

It was in the 1840s that Liverpool's population doubled as poor Irish immigrants fled the Great Potato Famine. Many were virtually destitute. Those with money and push went on to London, Birmingham or even the US. It is a drift with an echo in a more modern movement; the population of the city has virtually halved over the past 20 years. "Those with get up and go, got up and went," as a character says in Scouse, a play by a local writer, Andrew Cullen, currently showing at the city's Everyman Theatre (it is a grim fantasy in which Liverpool declares independence from the rest of the UK). Liverpool has always constituted what its Anglican bishop, David Sheppard, has called "the community of the left behind".

Yet it was a city with a great appetite for hewers of wood, drawers of water and shovellers-out of cargo-holds along its 12 miles of dockside. But where neighbouring Manchester developed industry, Liverpool largely stuck to trade and the primary processing it produced. No significant artisan class developed in this navvy culture. Its attitude to work remained essentially rural, conservative and dynastic; jobs passed from father to son.

But its most significant legacy to modern-day Liverpool lay in the system of casual labour on which the docks ran. Men crowded each day like animals into pens to be inspected and chosen for work. Those whose faces fitted were touched upon the shoulder by a bowler-hatted foreman and awarded a day's work. In some cases tallies were thrown into the crowd, and the men would scramble and fight for the privilege of labouring. Men would rise at 3am to walk seven miles hoping for work that did not materialise, and then walk seven miles home again.

It is the memory of those days that has burned itself into the collective consciousness and created the culture of suspicion that has bedevilled the city's industrial relations ever since. When, in 1967, after a six- week dock strike, the government brought in the National Dock Labour Scheme with proper sick pay, holidays and pension provisions, the dockers thought the bad old days were behind them for ever.

But the world changed. The Thatcher boom did not reach Liverpool in the same way as elsewhere. In the mobile phone, buy-your-own-home, yuppie dream, Liverpool was left behind. It never got the Feelgood Factor. Instead Militant incurred big debts by refusing to cut public spending - debts Liverpudlians are still paying, with the highest council tax in the country.

But when the Thatcherite recession came, the city was not excluded. "Barely a month went by," says Ged Fitzgerald, the head of the city's economic development unit, "without news of some major factory closing. Liverpool became the poorest city in England with an unemployment rate double the national average. As the climate worsened, so the docks management became more draconian in its demands." "The working man in Liverpool has always worked in a culture of fear," says Canon Nicholas Frayling, the Rector of Liverpool, who tried to mediate in the dispute in its early stages but was rebuffed by management. "Post Thatcher, that has become a culture of terror."

But the spirit of obstinacy persisted. That much is clear from the shop steward Kevin Robinson: "We are ambassadors for all working people," he says. "We know about casual labour, bad conditions, low pay - we've been there before - when you were hired on your religion, or which pub you drank in and whether you bought drinks for the foreman. It was a degrading system, and it's still fresh in people's minds. I can remember my father coming home from it. My mother, who is 74, recently told me: 'Whatever you do, lad, don't go back to those days'." Some would rather be unemployed than exploited. "For them it is better to die in the fight than admit defeat," says Frayling. "It's a Titanic struggle."

Titanic. Hyperbole has always been a distinctly Liverpudlian quality. So, too, is a tendency to nostalgia, to romanticise, to sentimentalise and to make myth. Yet such qualities are an important part of what builds the sense of community that developed in the strong parish life of the city and has somehow survived the destruction of the physical communities. It lingers still in intangibles such as the city's celebrated football. This deep sense of identity explains the profound communal sense of loss in the city when its fans perished at Hillsborough, and when the toddler James Bulger was murdered. "There's a quality of care and compassion born of generations of having it hard," says Canon Frayling. "It's a tender, compassionate streak. It's far more rewarding to be a priest here than down south."

The firms that understand all that prosper, insist local businessmen. "Liverpool workers are anarchic, but, properly understood and managed, are the most loyal and productive workforce in the world," said one senior manager with a major industrial company, who asked for his name not to be disclosed for fear of his comments being seen as an attack on the management of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - "which actually, if I am honest, it is," he added.

Not everyone would agree. Many Liverpudlians feel that the port authorities have made the dockers a good offer: jobs for 40 of the 320 sacked men and a pounds 25,000 severance payment for the rest, with a three-month reinstatement for all, to save face. The shop stewards' stubborn refusal to put this final offer to a secret ballot - it was rejected by a show of hands - has also lost them some sympathy among some sectors of the city's population.

And yet that same stubbornness is what lies behind the great triumphs of the city, particularly among its most disadvantaged people. Tony McGann did not know how to take no for an answer in his long battle with the Militant council when it wanted to demolish housing in the inner-city Vauxhall area despite the opposition of the local people. In the teeth of opposition from the council, his community group, the Eldonians, got private land and government money to build more than 300 new houses, a garden centre, a nursery, a village hall and a sports centre.

The parishioners of St Peter's Anglican church in Everton would not take no for an answer when they sat in in council houses to prevent councillors from demolishing them, even though the squatters knew they would not be eligible for tenancies when they were saved.

The women at the Women's Educational Trust in the city centre did not take no for an answer when it was suggested to them that with their background - cleaners and factory workers - they would be unable to cope with the courses it runs in information technology and electronic engineering. In the event they found themselves transformed, as was the Grade II listed building which its director, Claire Dove, raised the cash to restore to its former glory, to create an environment in which the women would grow in confidence. The thirst for education among working-class women is not a sign of a dinosaur city.

"The great strength of Liverpudlians is that they do not know when to give up," said one community development worker. "It is also their great weakness, too, if they do not have the judgement to know whether they should have started in the first place."

The dockers claim they had no choice. "With enhanced pension I could get pounds 35,000 under the deal they have offered us," says the dockers' shop steward, Kevin Robinson, "but I don't want the money. And it's not my job to sell. My grandfather and father did it before me. I am just the custodian of the job. I have three lads; if they wish to go down the docks that should be their choice. I want to pass my job on to someone else at the same rates and conditions."

The irony is that one son is at university, another is at college and the third is destined for the same. They are unlikely to want to work the docks. Yet Kevin sees a broader issue. Liverpool's dock regeneration may have created 14,000 jobs - the same number as have been lost to cargo- handling since the war. The city may have attracted new jobs from Barclaycard, Abbey National and the QVC cable TV shopping firm; the region's "informal" economy may be thriving; but there is more to all this than jobs.

It is something terribly unfashionable. Something to do with community, with dignity - even with decency. Things that, to our cost, the rest of us have lost a grip on in our rush to self-interest. Claire Dwyer knows it too. "We're here as a reminder of the idea that there's more to life than money. Principles. Standing together. Solidarity." Ultimately it is these that give meaning to life, more than the materialism and individualism of our atomised society.

"We can't lose," says Kevin Robinson. "We're in a no-lose situation. If I never go back to work, I will still be able to hold my head up." To those outside Liverpool, that is noble and it is doomed. Those in the city see that what is at stake is not economic survival, but cultural identity. "I think the world may come again to want what it has lost and these men have, in some way, hung on to," ponders Fr Williams. Evidently there are some outsiders who agree: on Sunday Jo Brand, Steve Coogan and a bunch of other comedians are performing at a benefit concert for the sacked dockers at the London Palladium. "Perhaps," says the dockers' priest, "the world will come to regard Thatcherism as just a phase." Would that it were so.

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