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Tony Mulhearn - An Obituary

Tony Mulhearn – politician, activist, campaigner, writer, Socialist

Born January 24, 1939; died October 7, 2019

Tony Mulhearn, who has died aged 80, was a life-long socialist whose commitment to the cause never wavered. This was despite the one-time president of Liverpool District Labour Party being expelled for his long-term support of Militant, the left-wing bête-noir of Neil Kinnock’s 1980s Labour Party leadership, whose mass expulsions arguably paved the way for Blairism.

As one of 47 councillors who set an illegal rate in defiance of Conservative government cuts, Mulhearn was at the forefront of a seismic struggle that set Liverpool City Council’s leading Labour group on a collision course, not just with the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but with their own party. While others in the struggle attracted the limelight, Mulhearn was quieter and more forensic in his approach, even as he stood alongside his comrades at the front of marches or else on the balcony of Liverpool Town Hall in what for a short time looked and felt like a lone republic taking a last stand before British politics changed forever.

Anthony Mulhearn was raised in the Fortenot Street and Leeds Street area of Everton, Liverpool, and attended Holy Cross School and Bishop Goss Secondary Modern. After leaving school he worked variously as a baker, tailor, trainee ship steward and apprentice cabinet maker before joining the then thriving print industry, and worked for a time as a ship’s printer with Canadian Pacific. He became politicised along the way through the trade union movement, and joined the Labour Party in 1963.

Mulhearn first stood for office as a councillor in 1979, for Crosby, but wasn’t elected. He became president of Liverpool District Labour Party a year later. He was due to stand for Toxteth in 1981, a move prevented by boundary changes. While he wasn’t voted onto the council until 1984, these were already heady times for Liverpool, which then had one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. It also had a long radical history, which, in the wake of inner-city riots and cuts in local services leading to mass disaffection, was a tinderbox of barely contained conflict.

Things came to a head in 1985, and Mulhearn was there in the audience sat alongside Liverpool City Council’s deputy leader Derek Hatton at the 1985 Labour Party conference when Kinnock condemned Liverpool City Council’s strategy of issuing redundancy notices to council employees in order to stave off legal action. Mulhearn and his fellow councillors were barred from public office for five years, and he was expelled from the Labour Party in 1986.

A triple whammy was completed when the printing industry he grew up in was turned upside down after newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch moved his printing operations to Wapping. “To upset Thatcher, Kinnock and Murdoch,” Mulhearn reflected in an interview with the Liverpool Echo, “I must’ve been doing something right.” 

With Militant co-founder Peter Taaffe, Mulhearn wrote Liverpool: A City that Dared to Fight, a partisan account of the period that remained unwavering in its commitment. As Militant morphed into the Socialist Party, Mulhearn became the local party’s spokes-person for the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.

Between 1991 and 2001, Mulhearn worked as a taxi driver, and studied part-time at Liverpool John Moores University for a combined social sciences degree. In 1996, he was awarded a 2.1 with honours, with a first class pass for his dissertation on Leon Trotsky, and was named as ‘most meritorious mature student.’

Despite his radicalism, Mulhearn was belatedly praised by his political enemies, with Kinnock acknowledging his sincerity, while former Liberal leader of Liverpool City Council Sir Trevor Jones gave him similar respect. Mulhearn wasn’t one to be patronised, and took their comments with a pinch of salt.

When it was revealed many years later that Thatcher’s government had planned a strategy of ‘managed decline’ for Liverpool, already one of the most economically ravaged cities in the UK, it came as no surprise to Mulhearn and his comrades.

In 2009, Mulhearn underwent open heart surgery. The operation didn’t prevent his activism, and, in 2012, Mulhearn stood for mayor on a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition ticket. Even with a six-point plan that defended the NHS and opposed privatisation of services, he knew he wouldn’t win, but deemed it important to stand up to what he saw as a new set of orthodoxies, where the local Labour leadership now accepted cuts without protest. Labour won, but Mulhearn still polled higher than the Conservative candidate.

Latterly, he became vice-chair of the Merseyside Pensioners’ Association, a group he described as ‘the memory of the working class’.

Despite his political activity, family was at the heart of Mulhearn’s world, and after his wife of fifty-three years, Maureen, died earlier this year, he praised his extended clan for their support. It was a support he received with similar abundance after being diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable lung disease that forced him to curtail his activities in a way that his political opponents had failed to do.

In the midst of all this, Mulhearn managed to complete a memoir, The Making of a Liverpool Militant. The book was due to be launched the weekend after his passing, with General Secretary of Unite the Union and former Liverpool docker Len McCluskey one of the speakers. Mulhearn may not have lived to see his book’s publication, but the same revolutionary spirit that drove his life and work pulses every page.

Mulhearn is survived by his seven children, Lisa, Jack, Lynn, Tony, Joe, Angie and Vicki, eleven grand-children and eight great-grand-children.

The Herald, October 16th 2019


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