London Lefties

Paul Foot

  • 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:

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