Chapter 01: The Bradford Revolution

Submitted by R Totale on April 30, 2020

On a warm autumn afternoon in 1988 the nation's media circus descended on the city of Bradford to record "the night of the Tory long knives".

It was Tuesday, October 25th and the city's new ruling Conservative group were preparing to push through phase one of their controversial plans dubbed "The Bradford Revolution". As the afternoon drew in over 3000 people flooded from a mass rally at St. Georges Hall and lay siege to City Hall. A half day strike by NALGO's five and a half thousand council members had left the corridors of City Hall eerily silent, save for the crackle of walkie-talkies from a handful of nervous security officers.

Outside union stewards and police struggled to pave a way through the heaving crowd for the city's opposition councillors to enter. Most of the Tory councillors had gathered safely inside 2 hours earlier, where they sat and chatted or watched videos.

A long queue of citizens snaked around the front of the Victorian edifice waiting to gain admission to the 118 seat public gallery. A move by the Tory leadership to impose a "ticket only" system of entry, designed to exclude "known troublemakers", had been deemed illegal only 3 days before. The legal challenge had been mounted with help from Bradford Law Centre - a council funded legal advice project that was earmarked for closure by the city's new masters.

An additional room had been set aside in City Hall to accommodate a further 50 members of the public. The council’s proceedings would be relayed to them via loudspeakers.

In his first floor office overlooking the mass of protesters outside, council leader Eric Pickles waited tensely. Fellow Tory councillor Enid Manogue had been missing since the previous day after deserting her husband and children to run off with her toyboy lover. Ilkley Tory councillor Alan Blann, notorious for his "disappearing" acts was also still missing. If only one of Pickles' group failed to appear then all would be lost.

Eric Pickles had taken power the month before when a by-election victory had left his group with 45 seats on the council. Labour and Liberals combined could muster the same number - 45. But the wily Tory leader had lain plans for this eventuality months earlier.

Bradford's Lord Mayor Smith Midgley - a Tory from the same ward as Pickles - would preside over the council meeting. As each decision was to be taken he would cast his vote with the Conservative group. With the combined opposition voting against the Tories the result would always be a dead heat - 45 votes each. In such an outcome the Lord Mayor had a second "casting" vote. Traditionally this second vote should have been used in a non-partisan manner, which usually meant voting to retain the status quo. But under the new radical Tory leadership Midgley would use his second vote to push through the Conservatives new policy package.

So controversial was this strategy to prove that Gemima Wilson, a pensioner and life long Tory voter, would later mount a High Court challenge to the practice. The challenge would fail.

But even worse was to follow. There were no further council elections due until May 1990. This left Pickles with the task of maintaining his tenuous grip on the council, dependant on the Lord Mayor's casting vote, for 18 months. But Smith Midgley was due to step down as Lord Mayor in May 1989. By tradition the new Lord Mayor should have been a Liberal, which would of course have marked the end of Tory control. As a sign of his ruthless determination Eric Pickles had announced, within days of taking power, that his group intended to keep the Lord Mayor's chair for 2 years on the trot. This move was unprecedented in modern times.

At the councils Annual General Meeting in May 1989 the Tory group would vote down the Liberals nomination for Mayor. Then, using his casting vote, the outgoing Lord Mayor Smith Midgley would vote in George Hodgson as his replacement. Hodgson was yet another Tory from Pickles' own ward. This move too would be challenged in the High Court. That challenge would also fail.

As 4.00 p.m. approached the city's councillors began to make their way into the council chamber.

Eric Pickles, "the Beast of Bradford", led his troops to their seats as protests and abuse rained down from the packed public galleries above. Much to Pickles' relief both Manogue and Blann had turned up, giving him the full compliment of councillors he needed.

On the opposite side of the chamber Labour leader Phil Beeley eyed his overweight opponent with anger. Beeley had been a close friend to Pickles' predecessor as Tory leader, but he could not even bring himself to speak to Pickles. For Bradford it was a new phenomenon. Years of consensus politics had ended with Pickles and Beeley sharing a mutual contempt.

There lay few surprises ahead. Since taking control on September 18th Pickles had created a near hysterical atmosphere with a series of shock announcements spelling out his radical plans. Almost daily the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, had led it's front page with the latest news of proposed cuts, sell-offs, price rises and job losses. But Pickles knew exactly what he was doing. He chose to ignore warnings - even from his loyal officers. 3 weeks earlier he had made his most stunning pronouncement to date; the Tory group would axe the jobs of 9000 council employees!

At 4 o'clock the council meeting got underway. It was to be one of the longest in living memory lasting over 12 hours.

Throughout the meeting abuse flew across the council chamber and down from the galleries. At times it was impossible to hear the debates, but one by one the Tory's phase one proposals were pushed through on the casting vote of the Lord Mayor.

An hour and a half into the meeting everything stopped as someone set off the fire alarm. 2 hours later further disruption was caused by what turned out to be a hoax bomb call.

But nothing could stop Pickles and his group as proposal after proposal were approved in the stifling heat of the council chamber.

£5.8 million was cut from the budget, chiefly in Education. Up went council rents, the first of 2 such increases within 6 months.

Up went charges for leisure centres, theatre hire, car parks, school meals, home helps, meals on wheels, elderly luncheon clubs and cemeteries.

Staff cuts were announced amongst repairs and maintenance workers, caretakers, teachers, creche and nursery workers, social workers and council officers. Job vacancies would remain unfilled and budgets slashed in most departments. The councils' Old Peoples Homes would be sold off and Benefit Advice Centres closed.

For the largely poor inhabitants of the inner city it was a terrifying package and it was only the start. Within 6 months the council's budget would have been cut by £13 million.

Eric Pickles' 5 year plan was to cut over £50 million from the budget, to cut the council workforce by a third through job cuts and service privatisation, and to completely restructure the authority. The council would simply became a "holding" company which would meet 2 or 3 times a year in order to sign contracts with private companies who would provide whatever services remained.

By 4.30 on Wednesday morning as tired councillors staggered from the meeting Eric Pickles had assured his name would be known throughout the land.

To the thousands of protesters who had turned out to signal their anger at the Tory group, Eric Pickles was at best "a fat Tory bastard".

To the Labour group and trade unions he was "a puppet of central government".

To the hordes of journalists who began packing away and heading for their hotels, Pickles was "a man of mystery".

But to the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who sent her personal message of support later that day, Eric Pickles was a hero. He was bringing her revolutionary vision into the heart of the Inner Cities.