It’s unlikely that Sidney Webb features in Tony Blair’s pantheon of political heroes. It would, in fact, be difficult to think of a less likely match for Tony and Cherie than Sidney and Beatrice. Yet, after almost a century, the Webbs’ thinking about local government – their disdain for civic initiative and zeal for state uniformity – still appears to influence Labour Party policy.
Their tortuous history of English local government, published in 1906, is full of complaints about local autonomy. ‘It does not seem to have occurred to the framers or supporters of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835,’ they wrote, ‘to make the slightest beginning of any supervision, inspection, audit or control of the Municipal Corporations by a central authority.’ Beatrice Webb had intimate knowledge of Joseph Chamberlain’s achievements in Birmingham, yet she and Sidney went on to lament the failure of the ‘enthusiastic Democrats of the time’ to provide ‘any of the appropriate administrative machinery, for audit and inspection’ and to ‘comply with national requirements’. Annoyingly, councils were answerable only to the wishes of the local electorate.
In fact, the absence of national standardisation was one reason Victorian local government achieved so much. Life expectancy was hauled back from the low levels of the 1840s; cultural institutions – city museums and galleries – that are still in existence today were founded; architecture of unrivalled eclecticism was encouraged; and much was done to promote the interests of the newly enfranchised working class. Sidney Webb chafed at the untidiness of municipal autonomy, but he was aware of the potential of civic government. He recognised that the Victorian burgher may have seen himself as the arch-opponent of collectivism – ‘“Socialism, Sir?” he’d say: “Don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, Sir, individual self-help, that’s what made our city what it is”’ – but that didn’t stop him walking ‘along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water, and, seeing by the municipal clock in the municipal market that he is too early to meet his children from the municipal school’, retiring to the ‘municipal reading-room by the municipal art gallery, museum and library’.
Webb’s description isn’t quite fair, however: the Victorians thought that the spirit of local self-government, not individualism, had made Britain what it was. The Victorian civic elite was taught by the Romantic histories of Hallam, Lingard and Turner to see the free-roaming, self-governing Saxon tribes as their antecedents. Having endured the tyranny of the rapacious Normans and the absolutism of the Stuarts, in the Victorian era the Saxon witenagemot mystically rose again in the form of city council chambers. Civic self-government became a symbol of British identity. ‘On the other side of the Channel, Paris is France, but no such rule applies with us,’ the Birmingham Daily Press explained. ‘Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and other towns must be asked their opinion’ before London makes any decisions. In Gaskell’s North and South, it’s only when the spectre of centralisation is raised that the sturdily ineloquent mill-owner Mr Thornton can rise to the rhetorical level of Margaret Hale:
I belong to Teutonic blood; it is little mingled in this part of England to what it is in others; we retain much of their language; we retain more of their spirit . . . We hate to have laws made for us at a distance. We wish people would allow us to right ourselves, instead of continually meddling, with their imperfect legislation. We stand up for self-government, and oppose centralisation.
When Lord Morpeth sought to expand the role of the state in the 1848 Public Health Act, he was abused for undermining Britain’s Saxon constitution. The ‘mental imbecility which is everywhere produced in the masses’ when one man in Whitehall is made responsible for the governance of millions seemed to the Economist ‘far greater evil than the perpetuation of bad smells, and generation of partial diseases’. Smells and diseases were fine, as long as they were the ‘consequence of non-interference by authorities with the dwellings of the multitude’.
Happily for the Economist, the Saxon spirit survived Morpeth and his ‘Prussian’ reforms. By the late 1850s, the state was in retreat as newly incorporated municipalities raised rates, levied taxes and sanctioned loans to fund improvements. Generous private subscriptions and a penny on the rates paid for town halls, museums, libraries, baths and parks. The 1867 Reform Act quickened the civic spirit by enfranchising leaseholders, thereby easing the stranglehold of the rate-paying ‘shopocracy’ over local government. The voluntarism of the mid-Victorian city slowly gave way to the municipalism of the later 19th century.
Yet as demands for social welfare provision increased in the early 1900s, the municipalities began to flounder. In 1902 school boards were abolished as part of the drive for ‘national efficiency’ inspired by the poor physical condition of Boer War recruits. Burdened with new duties and under pressure from rate-payer revolts, local authorities turned helplessly to central government. Treasury concern at local authority indebtedness, the Fabian vogue for statist uniformity and the centralising demands of the First World War moved the centre of political gravity further towards Westminster.
It took World War Two to finish off the municipal spirit. In its wake came state collectivism. The nationalisations of the Attlee Administration gravely worried the defenders of local government. ‘You have only to look around the world today to find that efforts are being made to govern countries without local authorities and we want to avoid that by all means in this country,’ Alderman Roberts of Grantham was moved to remark in 1946. As John Davis concluded in the Cambridge Urban History of Britain (2000), the second half of the 20th century saw local authorities reduced to ‘agents of the central welfare state, their incapacity off-set by central subsidies which covered over 60 per cent of local expenditure by the 1970s’. Today, central government provides almost 75 per cent of that expenditure.
In the 1828 Sorbonne lectures that formed the basis of The History of Civilisation in Europe, François Guizot asked himself what a 12th-century burgher would think about an 18th-century borough. ‘The inhabitants tell him that beyond the wall there is a power which taxes them at pleasure, without their consent . . . He learns that the affairs of the borough are not decided in the borough; but that a man belonging to the king, an intendant, administers them, alone and at a distance.’ Conversely, an 18th-century burgher visiting a 12th-century town would find a model of local self-government. ‘The burghers tax themselves, elect their magistrates, judge and punish, and assemble for the purpose of deliberating upon their affairs . . . In a word they govern themselves; they are sovereigns.’ In the same spirit, the urban historian Tony Travers recently wondered how a Victorian civic elder would cope in the current dirigiste environment. In Birmingham during the 1870s, Joseph Chamberlain could raise rates, municipalise utilities, take out vast loans and allocate city funds. Now he might start the day waiting anxiously for a ministerial Rover and spend the rest of it shuffling a Parliamentary Under Secretary around crumbling city ‘no-go areas’ in the hope of some beneficence from Whitehall departments. And he wouldn’t get any money until he’d suffered the further indignity of signing a Public Service Agreement committing him to do exactly as Treasury civil servants dictated.
The relationship between central and local government has always been particularly problematic in the case of London. Early Victorian attempts to form a single body to govern the capital met with the hostility of the guardians of Saxon virtue lodged in the Corporation of London. Chief among them was Joshua Toulmin Smith, founder of the Anti-Centralisation League and authority on the history of parish and vestry. In The Metropolis and Its Municipal Administration (1852), he argued against bringing the City of London under the remit of the 1848 Public Health Act and praised the unelected and deeply corrupt Corporation. It possessed, he noted, the ‘full powers’ of local self-government, and had succeeded in ‘securing to every one of its citizens all the rights, and imposing all the obligations, of men free and equal before their fellow-men and before the law’.
Toulmin Smith prevailed. In a fudge that typifies relations between central government and the Corporation of London, the indirectly elected Metropolitan Board of Works was created in 1855 to supervise public infrastructure. Only in 1889 did London get a properly elected local authority in the celebrated form of the London County Council. Home to progressive Liberals (and even the odd Fabian councillor such as Sidney Webb) in the 1890s and early 1900s, the LCC eventually attracted the hostility of rate-payers and fell in 1907 to the Conservatives, who ran the Council until Herbert Morrison mobilised his London Labour caucus in the 1930s. Gradually, however, the depopulation of London and growth of suburbs in Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Essex fatally undermined the LCC. By 1961, the population under its jurisdiction had fallen to its 1871 level of 3.2 million, with five million people living in the outer suburbs.
By then the talk was of the need for a ‘strategic authority’ for London. It would acquire some of the powers of the centrist LCC, and the provision of services would be left to individual local authorities. In 1963 the Greater London Council was formed. ‘While the LCC area had some continuing claim to reality as “London”,’ Ben Pimlott and Nirmala Rao write, ‘the Greater London area would be a constellation of competing communities. However, there was no longer a premium on the kind of identity of interest or community that was arguably a characteristic of the doomed LCC.’ Until it was threatened with extinction, few Londoners had much affection for the GLC. Pimlott and Rao seem to agree with L.J. Sharpe’s verdict that it ‘never enjoyed the prestige, status, and perhaps that degree of citizen allegiance that ought to have accrued to the country’s capital city government’. In 1986, after a costly PR battle in which the main winners were advertising executives, Margaret Thatcher closed down County Hall. The GLC’s functions were privatised, and London was represented in government by a succession of ministers with no particular interest in the city.
During the mid-1990s, New Labour announced its intention to devolve power from Whitehall and, once elected, Blair’s Government began a series of constitutional reforms. After Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland came London. The capital was to regain its ‘voice’. What it was not going to regain was the GLC. In an interview last year, not commented on in Governing London, Blair made clear the extent to which his politics have been influenced by the excesses of the early 1980s Labour Party: by flickering memories of Derek Hatton and the Militant refusal to set a rate in Liverpool and Lambeth; by Ken Livingstone’s courting of Sinn Fein during his time as a young political activist in London; by Margaret Hodge’s defiance of rate-capping in Islington (her purpose, she said, was ‘to support all our comrades who are in the frontline’ and ‘inflict massive damage on the Government’). As the New Labour pollster Philip Gould remarked in his officially sanctioned modernisers’ account, The Unfinished Revolution (1998), the Tory exposure of the ‘loony Left’ did so much harm because ‘it was true’. When he reached Downing Street, Blair was convinced that devolution should take place within a regulatory framework the Webbs would have approved of. New Labour was to concern itself with uniform public service delivery, not with the renewal of civic democracy. There would be national standards enforceable by endlessly multiplying government taskforces.
Just as the statist Webbs admired the achievements of municipal socialism, so Blair was drawn to the idea of a strong city identity. Seduced by the dynamic example of Rudy Giuliani’s New York City Hall, he argued that ‘strong civic leadership could help restore some of the much needed civic pride in London.’ There was, however, a very unBlairite obstacle to his plans: the Labour Party’s municipal heritage. He was, as Pimlott and Rao put it, ‘hostile to the English municipal tradition, he was contemptuous of the committee system and suspicious of what he saw as the endemic failings and inefficiencies of local government.’ On the verge of power, New Labour began a quick-fire debate about governing London. The leadership and a majority of the London Labour Party were agreed that primary service provision should remain with local authorities while the new Greater London Authority would ‘promote economic, transport, planning, environmental and policing strategies’. The question was whether there should be a directly elected mayor for London (answerable to the GLA) or an indirectly elected mayor equivalent to the leader of a council.
Those arguing for an executive mayor included Michael Heseltine (the hammer of the GLC), the Evening Standard and Simon Jenkins, a long-standing critic of London council bungling. Opposition to the idea was led by Labour’s Environment spokesman, the former Camden councillor Frank Dobson – an irony not lost on the future mayoral candidate. Blair decided on directly elected mayors for all cities that wanted them. He conjured up a cast of modern Chamberlains ready to rejuvenate the ailing capital. What he hoped was that go-getting New Labour business leaders would offer themselves: Bob Ayling, Richard Branson, Marjorie Scardino . . .
The person he did not have in mind was Ken Livingstone, who, perversely, seemed perfect for the post. Who better to give ‘voice’ to the capital than the man who had bravely said ‘no to no say’ in 1986? Of course, the popular memory of GLC excesses presented a problem. As Livingstone himself put it to his biographer John Carvel,
if London was being given the powers available to the Länder, the two main attacks against me by the Tories would be that I’d increase taxes and give all the money to lesbians. But the Government is saying I can’t tax and I can’t fund local organisations. In the two areas of weakness that I’d have had to contend with in a rough old campaign, I’ve been saved by Tony Blair.
Yet Livingstone was on the record as not wanting the job. He had publicly dismissed the scheme for a directly elected mayor as ‘absolutely barmy’. The failure to give the GLA any revenue-raising powers, he said, meant ‘the Mayor would have no more authority than Marshal Pétain.’ Once a directly elected mayor was decided on, however, Livingstone didn’t take long to change his mind and to launch a campaign for the Labour nomination. Carvel quotes Livingstone on being drawn back into London politics in 1998 after his years in the Parliamentary wilderness: ‘You find yourself thinking: how could I push through a high-speed bus lane strategy? Suddenly you know you are hooked.’
Apart from a few months as a lab technician in his early twenties, Livingtone’s career has been built around running for and holding local government office: Lambeth Council, Camden Council, the GLC. Such dependence on office has bred in Livingstone a shaming suppleness. In 1945, London’s greatest Labour politician, Herbert Morrison, gave up his solid Labour seat of South Hackney for East Lewisham in the hope of extending the Party’s reach into the Tory heartlands. In 1977, having spent the previous four years undermining Sir Reg Goodwin’s moderate Labour administration, Livingstone fled his marginal GLC Norwood ward for the safety of Hackney North. ‘You cannot just have a socialist revolution in Norwood and nowhere else’ he explained to the South London Press.
In 1981 Labour retook control of County Hall. Once in power, Livingstone presided over a gently incompetent administration whose main achievement – low public transport fares – quickly became the subject of a High Court action. Seemingly more interested in meeting members of the IRA Army Council and supporting the Militant Tendency than in running London, Livingstone severely tarnished Labour’s public image. His behaviour provoked the fury of Neil Kinnock and played right into Tory hands. Reckless GLC budgets ensured that local authority rate-capping and the abolition of the GLC had pride of place in the 1983 Conservative election manifesto.
The New Labour establishment should still have been popular enough in 1998 to counter Livingstone’s mayoral bid. But Blair’s political capital within the Labour movement had already begun to decline. The problems began in Wales, where Blair had allowed his antipathy towards Rhodri Morgan (said to stem from an uncomfortable night in the chaotic Morgan household) to determine the choice of the Labour leader in the new Welsh Assembly. In the face of uniform disapproval, Blair imposed the unloved, Westminster-based Alun Michael. The Labour rank and file were indignant and it became apparent that running a Number Ten candidate against Livingstone in London would be disastrous. Yet Downing Street went ahead with a dubious electoral college by means of which Frank Dobson was reluctantly propelled into the Labour candidacy. Having vowed not to stand as an independent candidate against Labour, Livingstone broke his word.
Neither Dobson nor Livingstone believed in the post they were running for. It was all strategy and no power; lots of co-ordination but few decisions. The GLA’s budget of £3.3 billion is subject to ministerial approval. In Sidney Webb’s day, 70 per cent of electricity, 50 per cent of tramways and 40 per cent of gas were provided by local government. The new London Mayor is not even allowed to run the Underground: New Labour claimed an electoral mandate for partial privatisation, but Livingstone regarded his mayoral victory as equivalent to a referendum rejecting the scheme. The High Court disagreed. Unperturbed, Livingstone has spent a fruitless two years abusing the preferred private contractors (‘the worst scum of modern British capitalism’), promising to join the RMT union on the picket line (but never actually turning up) and with his sidekick, Bob Kiley, popularly credited with turning round the New York subway system, vainly arguing the case for municipal bonds. The Mayor’s refusal to accept the privatisation plans, combined with a sense that after two years of meagre achievement his populist appeal is markedly diminished, recently led the Party’s National Executive to reject Livingstone’s application to rejoin the Party – and this put an end to his hopes of being the official Labour candidate next time.
Now the Mayor has staked everything on the success of his congestion charge, due to start in February 2003. In preparation he has sanctioned a cascade of roadworks that might well miraculously end on the day the five-pound levy is introduced. Which would be fine if he hadn’t promised the transport budget to the RMT leader Bob Crow and his strike-happy Tube drivers. Meanwhile, the London Labour Party is left with a grisly choice between ‘Quango Queen’ Nicky Gavron and cheeky-chappy Tony Banks for their mayoral candidate.
This must be hurtful. Livingstone has been determined to disprove Blair’s prediction that he would be a ‘disaster’ for the London economy and has proved himself in many ways a compliant New Labour intendant. The scourge of corporatism, the candidate who declared global capitalism responsible for more deaths than Hitler, has rolled over in front of a grateful Corporation of London. To achieve the forecasts for finance and service sector growth contained in his 20-year plan for London, ‘an average of 0.5 to 0.7 million square metres would need to be added to London’s office stock each year.’ In this spirit he has pushed for planning permission to be granted and offices built at a rate damaging to the capital’s environment.
Perhaps because it has been relatively untroubled by Livingstone, the Government is now on the verge of extending self-government to the English regions. At last, the North-East will be able to have its regional assembly, though, like Londoners, the local population might well be disappointed. According to the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice, the regions will have even less power than the GLA and the London Mayor. Certainly nothing equivalent to Scotland or Wales. They will have no revenue-raising powers and no control over health, education, police or transport. What they will be left with is ‘significant strategic responsibilities’, whatever they may be.