- If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it by Ken Livingstone
Collins, 367 pp, £12.00, August 1987, ISBN 0 00 217770 6
- A Taste of Power: The Politics of Local Economics edited by Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright
Verso, 441 pp, £22.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 86091 174 8
The Greater London Council was set up by the Conservative Government in 1963 because the old London County Council was redistributing wealth of every kind from the London rich to the London dispossessed. A ‘new London’ was created, which extended well into the safe Tory areas in Surrey, Kent and Essex. The new authority seemed certain to be Conservative in perpetuity, but just in case it didn’t turn out that way, the Government stripped the London County Council of most of its more crucial functions, control over which passed to the new borough councils. Although the plan immediately went wrong, and Labour won control of the firstever Greater London Council, the Conservatives were happy with their handiwork. In 1967, they won control of the GLC in a massive swing. In 1969, the Labour Government transferred the bureaucratically-controlled London Transport to the new, elected Greater London Council. There was no complaint from the Conservative Party. Its two transport frontbenchers in the Commons, up-and-coming young hopefuls called Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine, welcomed the transfer, and specifically stated that this would enable the Council, if it felt like it, to hold transport fares down with a subsidy from the rates. Labour won back the GLC in 1973, but lost it to the Tories in 1977, when the new Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, described the GLC victory as the ‘jewel in the crown’. All sorts of ambitious Tories showed an interest in and support for the GLC. Kenneth Baker wrote a pamphlet demanding that the GLC become more of a ‘strategic authority for London’. Patrick Jenkin wrote in favour of the new Tory creation, and its expansion.
Then, in 1981, Labour regained the GLC. It became clear at once that the new Labour administration intended to break completely with the traditional values of Labour in office. Its ‘moderate’ and accommodating leader, Andrew McIntosh, was kicked out and replaced by the candidate of the left wing, Ken Livingstone. The times were bad for the Thatcher Government – one of the few really bad periods it has had. The economy was going through its deepest slump since the Thirties. The Falklands War was not even imagined. Labour was riding high in the polls, and moving hectically to the left. Tony Benn was packing halls all over the country with a new brand of socialist rhetoric, whose theme was that future Labour administrations must make a ‘clean break’ with the opportunism and failure of the Wilson-Callaghan era.
The new GLC hired numbers of these Bennites to encourage ‘popular activity’ in the interests of the dispossessed. It suddenly became clear that the vast rates which the GLC could levy without much damage to anyone could be used to assist all kinds of people who badly needed help. For instance, the GLC immediately announced its plans for doing what Thatcher and Heseltine had said they could do – cut transport fares with a subsidy from the rates, and so, at a stroke, revive a flagging public transport system and relieve the traffic congestion throttling the city.
This was too much for the Tories. Almost at once, Mrs Thatcher and the right wing of the Tory Party resolved to remove Transport from the GLC and to abolish the council which their party had created. The first they did at once; the second they could not do without an excuse. A few weeks before the 1983 General Election, without any of the normal consultations in the Party, and without even putting the matter to the Party’s Policy Committee, Mrs Thatcher herself inserted a paragraph in the Tories’ Election Manifesto: after a bitter battle which the new Tory government, even with its vast Commons majority, often looked like losing, the GLC was abolished, and its function replaced by a bureaucratic quango of the type the Tory Party once promised to wipe out.
Thatcher’s Environment Ministers, Jenkin and Baker, both former enthusiasts for the GLC, offered various ‘reasons’ for this cynical charade. Fortunately for posterity, their colleague Norman Tebbit spelt the issue out quite clearly at an enthusiastic meeting of the London Conservatives in 1984:
Vol. 9 No. 18 · 15 October 1987
SIR: Curiously Paul Foot, after himself giving a factual explanation for the ’81-’86 GLC’s socialist folklore standing, immediately switches to saying that the facts and folklore are very far apart. Is he trying to add drama to his contribution? The actual effect is one of factitiousness. Having praised GLC achievements, solidly, and cited the support they engendered in Londoners, he goes on to say that ‘all the evidence’ (that dolorous expression!) is that the ‘London factor’ cost Labour general election votes. In Paul Foot’s hindsight, Livingstone has become a ridiculous boaster. In two contiguous sentences Paul Foot refers to achievements of which Ken Livingstone has most right to be proud as having had the ‘whole political tide’ turn against them, then says that this, retrospectively, renders that pride ridiculous! If it is silly Ken for being unable to read the future, what does one make of a Paul who cannot sustain his conviction from one sentence to the next?
Vol. 10 No. 5 · 3 March 1988
SIR: I can’t decide whether R.W. Johnson (Letters, 4 February) is offering himself as a knight come from the people to rescue me from the evil influence of Wicked Barons Scargill and Livingstone; or whether he is a bully hurling himself, rugby style, at me, the besotted little woman, as an easy substitute for doing battle with the Great Leaders themselves. If it is the former, I’m afraid I would have to turn him down. I do not find his populism convincing. He appeals to me in the name of the ‘once-Labour working class of Brent’. But only a few months ago he was arguing that one of Labour’s problems is that it no longer has Oxbridge graduates at its helm (LRB, 23 July 1987). Johnson speaks with a forked tongue: he’s with the working class as voters, potential supporters and when generally behaving as ‘the masses’, but when they have the cheek to take on leading positions, challenge the Government, run London – well, no wonder the Labour Party is in the mess it is.
Anyway, I don’t need rescuing. I supported striking miners and their families and worked for the GLC without believing that their leaders walked on water. Anyone who has read the critical essays I co-edited about the GLC – A Taste of Power: The Politics of Local Economics, reviewed in the London Review (LRB, 17 September 1987) – will know that talk of my ‘devotion to Great Leaders’ is twaddle. Misogynist twaddle, judging by its tone!
The evidence for the bully thesis is more convincing. First, a bully smears the character of his victim so that his ruthlessness appears heroic. In the school playground the taunt is ‘softy’. In the pages of the LRB, too, Johnson’s innuendo is that I am a softy, soft on Scargill, soft on Livingstone – a softness leading to Stalinism. By contrast, Johnson poses as the tough, hard-nosed inside-dopester, prepared to reveal the facts, however unpalatable. But who are the insiders that our sleuth consorts with? If the rumours they pass on to him are based on fact, why didn’t they make their accusations during the election for the NUM President, when every move of the number one national bogeyman was being followed by a pack of hungry industrial reporters? In accusing me of Stalinism, isn’t Johnson relying on exactly the sort of people who enable Stalinist – and Labourist – authoritarianism to flourish: cowardly people who smear their enemies by innuendo rather than risk their own position by engaging in open debate?
My book was not about the NUM, or the miners’ strike; I discussed aspects of the strike to illustrate Labour’s bewildered, unbelieving reaction to the breakdown of the old corporatism on which it so depended. So I do not intend to answer all Johnson’s remarks about the NUM’s finances. But it has to be said that there are certain elementary points on which he misleads LRB readers.
First, on the legal position of donations to striking miners and their families. He complains that there is ‘no trace’ of the money from the Soviet miners in the NUM’s accounts. In doing so, he overlooks the fact that for most of the strike the NUM was not in control of its finances: they were in the hands of the Sequestrator or Official Receiver. Consequently all donations went either into the independent Solidarity Fund, to Women Against Pit Closures or directly to paying the NUM’s creditors. Anything paid to the NUM – and appearing in its accounts – would have gone straight into the hands of the Receiver. People and organisations made their donations through necessarily unofficial channels. If any of these did not reach their intended destination, I would like to see the evidence. None of the arguments in my book or underlying my support for the miners or their families depend on a cover-up.
The most important clue to understanding the finances of the NUM, and just about everything else about the NUM, is its federal character. Johnson discusses its finances as if it was like any other national union, moving from ‘the NUM’ to ‘the leadership’ as if they were one and the same thing. He states that in spite of the NUM’s great wealth, its leadership paid nothing to striking miners and their families. But the NUM’s accounts indicate that Johnson cannot have it both ways: the only basis on which the NUM could be said to be wealthy before the strike was by including the assets of the financially-independent NUM Areas. But the majority of these Area Unions gave millions of pounds to striking miners and their families. They liquidated nearly a quarter of their assets for the purpose. If, on the other hand, Johnson is referring to the national organisation of the NUM, he is right: it did not pay anything to the strikers and their families – for the simple reason that without its normal income from subscriptions, it barely had enough to cover the costs of running the union. The NUM’s accounts are available from the Certification Office, 15-17 Ormond Yard SW1, and are discussed in The Finances of British Trade Unions 1975-85 by Paul Willman and T.J. Morris.
Perhaps the final proof of Johnson’s bullying methods is that by transferring to me his evident hostility to Scargill and accusing me of Stalinism, he tries, with a sideways swipe, to obliterate the purpose of my book: to bring the issue of democracy and the undemocratic character of the British state to the top of the Left’s agenda. I won’t be bullied and I am not in need of rescue, but if R.W. Johnson would like to debate the central arguments of Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, I would be delighted if he took up my publisher’s suggestion of a public debate – at his place or mine?