- 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:
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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. 1 · 7 January 1988
SIR: I was amused to see that R.W. Johnson disagrees with Labour: A Tale of Two Parties so strongly (LRB, 10 December 1987). But I challenge the charge that the book is ‘not strong on facts’. The ‘facts’ which Johnson uses to make his case do not stand up to investigation. First, Johnson’s facts on the miners’ strike. He makes several inaccurate statements but the two most important are these. 1. One of my omissions, says Johnson, is that I make ‘no mention of the fact that the NUM, though one of the richest unions in the country, refused to give strike pay despite the terrible suffering of miners’ families.’ He is right, I do not make any such mention, for the simple reason that the NUM of the Eighties is not ‘one of the richest unions in the country’. If the NUM had paid strike pay to its 150,000 or so striking members, it would have been bankrupt within six weeks. There has never been any provision in the rules of the NUM for strike pay for a national strike. Even in wealthier days, strike pay for a national strike by an industrial union like the NUM (as distinct from a general union where it is sections rather than the whole membership who are normally involved in a strike) would quickly use up the union’s funds. 2. Johnson goes on to say that the union ‘carried on paying its officials, such as Mr Scargill, quite normally’. In fact, during the first month of the strike, the NUM’s National Executive decided that none of its members nor any NUM full-time official should draw their salaries until the end of the dispute. Mr Scargill’s salary, along with that of other officials, went to the Miners’ Solidarity Fund, a fund for miners’ families in hardship (trustees: David Blunkett and Sheffield MPs Bill Mackie and Richard Caborn).
He is also inaccurate about the GLC. He asserts, confidently, that ‘the collapse of London services constantly predicted by the GLC’ has ‘not taken place’. From the vantage point of an Oxford don, the signs of collapse might not be immediately obvious. But from London’s Underground, London’s bus stops, roads and communities the view is rather different. The latest Annual Report of the London Regional Passengers’ Committee and an earlier report – Counting the cost – of the Association of London Authorities are just two of several accounts of the serious deterioration, at times collapse, of services previously under the control of the GLC.
Finally, Johnson says I support proportional representation and talk ‘blithely of the day when Labour will win an absolute majority under PR’. My own words were: ‘In the long run socialism needs the active support of the overwhelming majority of people; we have nothing to fear from an electoral system which requires us to win such support.’
Vol. 10 No. 3 · 4 February 1988
SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s logic (Letters, 7 January) still leaves me baffled. She says Labour has nothing to fear from an electoral system which would have banished all majority Labour governments from the history books – and then looks to a future in which ‘socialism’ (not just Labour) goes far beyond the always unattainable 50 per cent to gain ‘the overwhelming majority’. What are we talking about here – 70 per cent, 85 per cent, 99.9 per cent? The only way of gaining access to figures such as these is by Eastern European methods or the use of hallucogenic substances, and I am not sure which of these Ms Wainwright is recommending.
The same peculiar hallmark is present in the discussion of the NUM. It simply will not do, when talking of the NUM’s resources, to attempt to elide away the difference between pre-strike wealth and post-strike poverty by using the deliberately vague phrase, ‘the NUM of the Eighties’. The fact is that before the strike the NUM was, member for member, probably the wealthiest union in the country and that its funds rivalled those of unions many times its size. Of course it is true that it could not afford to keep its whole membership on full strike pay for a year – neither I nor anyone else was suggesting that. What Ms Wainwright refuses to face up to is how truly remarkable it was that, during the coal strike, the NUM leadership appealed to other unions and to all of us, the general public, to help relieve the terrible suffering of the miners’ families by direct donations, while itself giving no such relief. Instead, the leadership used its discretion to waste vast sums on always hopeless and thus quite irresponsible legal antics and to send large sums winging round the European banking system. That same discretion could have been exercised to spend the same money on affording some relief, however slight, to the suffering of NUM members and their wives and children. It is silly to speak as if the NUM rules somehow prevented this: it was purely a matter of discretion how the funds were used. The leadership, in the event, used its discretion to throw the money away.
Ms Wainwright surely also knows how murky and controversial the question of money within the NUM during the strike is and how inadequate it is to pretend that the whole matter can be disposed of by reference to a resolution about the disposition of the salaries of Scargill and his henchmen. For a start, the NUM continued to pay all the tax, national insurance and other contributions of its officials throughout the strike. Moreover, these officials all had access to expense accounts and it was commonly alleged by NUM members that some officials seemed to be almost better-off during the strike than before it. We all remember the press brouhaha over the expensive foreign holiday taken by one NUM official after many months of strike had depleted to misery levels the resources of mere members?
There is also the unhappy fact that very large sums of money were contributed by sympathisers and that the disposition of this money was not always satisfactorily accounted for, giving rise to all manner of recriminations within the union. Perhaps the most remarkable case is that of the very large sum raised by Soviet miners – many of whom contributed a whole day’s pay in support of their British colleagues. The fact that there is no trace at all of this sum in the NUM accounts has led to some extremely bitter questioning, and it would be fair to say that the answers provided by Mr Scargill are far from satisfying even some NUM officials. What is certain is that the money was sent and that it is traceable as far as the French CGT; thereafter the trail goes cold. The secretary of the Soviet miners’ union, when recently in this country, was closely questioned on the matter by darkly suspicious NUM members. He appeared clearly upset and disconcerted at the way in which this money had vanished, apparently for ever, into thin air.
Ms Wainwright is surely too close a political associate of Mr Scargill’s not to be fully aware of certain resemblances to that other entrepreneur of the hard Left, Derek Hatton – he of the BMW with the personalised number plates. She must know that of all the NUM expense accounts, Mr Scargill’s was – and is – the largest and that he retained his chauffeur and large car throughout the strike. (Which other union leader would go from one picket-line fracas to the next in a chauffeur-drive Jaguar? The style is reminiscent of African chieftaincy, Buthelezi-style, or perhaps an Auberon Waugh parody on the English working class. Can anyone who has read Animal Farm avoid a snort of recognition at such behaviour? A grunt, even?) Since the strike Mr Scargill has astonished many of his members who are slowly and painfully digging themselves out of debt by lashing out on a £150,000 house (a sum that buys a palace in West Yorkshire). It is not entirely clear whether this is Mr Scargill’s second or third abode – his previous house does not appear to have been sold and the new one, in which Mr Scargill actually lives, is in the name of his student son-in-law. Mr Scargill has also acquired a flat in the Barbican.
The fact that so unconditional a Scargillite as Ms Wainwright can look hard the other way when the conversation turns to topics such as, well, chauffeur-driven Jaguars is perhaps to be expected. But the real key to the way Ms Wainwright thinks is that she should have been able to write a book in which the miners’ strike looms so large without ever once mentioning the leadership’s refusal to allow a membership ballot; indeed, she condemns another union because it did hold such a ballot. The word ‘Stalinism’ is too often and too loosely thrown around, but here we have a textbook example of what is meant: an unswerving devotion to the Great Leader, including the attribution of all manner of heroic and saintly motives to him, the suppression of key historical facts, with deviationists such as the Nottingham miners simply written out of history (they become entire non-persons for Ms Wainwright), the endless repetition of ideological catch-phrases and a straightforward disrespect for democratic procedure.
Finally, the GLC – where Ms Wainwright is, of course, similarly devoted to another Great Leader. Ms Wainwright suggests that the complete collapse of services in London is not obvious to me because I am, irredeemably, an Oxford don. Actually, if the dire predictions of the GLC leadership really had been borne out – ‘chaos’, ‘utter shambles’, ‘anarchy’ and so on – then maybe it should have been obvious even to someone like me: we’re not talking about the normal, ghastly Thatcherite cuts, after all, but about something closer to Götterdämmerung. Hilary Wainwright’s real problem is not with people like me but with the once-solid Labour voters of London, to whom the GLC’s predictions do not appear to be obviously true either. Had they held such a perception, it is inconceivable that they would have swung further towards the Tories this year while the rest of the country was moving the other way. Had Ken Livingstone’s GLC been anything like the success Ms Wainwright believes, it is inconceivable he would have succeeded in turning one of the safest Labour seats in the country into a marginal. Ms Wainwright is doubtless right not to worry that her ideas may have failed to pass muster with an Oxford don: the fact that the once-Labour working class of Brent feels the same might give her pause for thought.
Magdalen College, Oxford
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, 10 December 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?