“Who governs Britain?” Conservative politician Edward Heath asked in his 1974 bid for prime minister, saying the quiet part out loud.
A brilliant strategist, Heath restored the Tories to power in 1970, ushering in a new age of austerity after two terms of Harold Wilson's progressive Labour Government.
“Heath took a much harder line against the trades unions,” says British photographer Martin Mayer. “Rank and file union members became increasingly militant after the change of government as inflation began to rise.”
Mayer, who took up photography in 1970, immediately set to work at an emerging leftist daily newspaper. “I volunteered to help with the photography as I felt at the time that it might make a real difference,” he says.
Although based in London, Mayer regularly travelled the country to get pictures of the day for the paper. While in the North West, he spent some time with a local journalist who had a knack for feature ideas. Together, they began working on a story about the changes in Liverpool under the guise of slum clearance and urban renewal.
With the wholesale demolition of old Victorian terraces, Mayer explains residents had limited options. “They could either move into high rise flats, where it was not possible for children to play outside safely; or they could move to one of the ‘new towns’ like Kirkby or Skelmersdale, which had very few facilities apart from a few factories and basic shops,” he remembers, so “recording this transition seemed like an important thing to do.”
Inspired by the work of Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, Mayer set forth to chronicle the radical changes to the city’s landscape, collected in the new book, Liverpool 1970s (Café Royal Books).
Amidst the systematic destruction of the neighbourhood, the children of the community made a way, playing in the rubble and razed blocks, against a backdrop of boarded up stores and residences announcing to the world “LIVERPOOL CORPORATIONS ARE VANDALS” in big white block letter graffiti.
“Adults were pretty angry about what was happening and were generally pleased that we were publicising it, so most were happy to be photographed,” Mayer recalls.
At the same time, Mayer documented labor issues including strikes and factory occupations, as well as the transformation of Liverpool’s legendary waterfront with the introduction of containerization, a revolutionary cargo-moving technique dominating the global shipping industry with far-reaching local impact.
Although made half a century ago, Mayer’s photographs reveal deep connections to the present day. “Every week it seems that today feels more and more like the early 1970s: fast rising inflation, leading to loss of buying power in most peoples’ wages, leading to higher wage demands, which are met by an intransigent government determined to keep wages down,” he says.
“Housing continues to be a major issue. Today it is not so much about the demolition of old properties but much more about the constantly rising cost of housing and rents, which makes it all but impossible to find anywhere affordable to live.”
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