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:

The Labour Party is the party of division. In its present form it represents a threat to the democratic values and institutions on which our parliamentary system is based. The Greater London Council is typical of this new modern divisive version of socialism. It must be defeated. So we shall abolish the Greater London Council.

In the name of parliamentary democracy, Mr Tebbit pledged himself to abolish elections because the other side had won – and had then had the gall to seek to carry out its election promises.

The five years of the ‘Livingstone GLC’ – 1981-1986 – have already entered into modern socialist folklore. This is not just because it was abolished against the wishes of at least three-quarters of the London electorate. It is also a tribute to the Council’s very real achievements. Most of these were in the tradition of mundane municipal reformism. Fares were kept down, and London transport benefited. A great deal of money was found for less traditional areas of municipal subsidy, such as child care. But the main achievements were in the battle against prejudice – and against a press which championed prejudice. The editor of the Daily Mail, for example, haunted by the certainty that lesbianism was deliberately spread by the subversive GLC, appointed one of his top reporters to track this down. Indeed, a whole army of pressmen seemed to be permanently engaged in writing filth about Livingstone and the GLC. Most politicians would have been broken within months. But Ken Livingstone, protected by a rueful sense of humour and a genuine disgust for all forms of prejudice, seemed to survive. He is at his best when he patiently explains about the loneliness and despair of so many gay people in London; or when he is asking gently how the ‘Irish problem’ is to be solved while that island remains split in two. It was this spirit of quiet determination to face down prejudice, even in the ranks of Labour, which transformed County Hall, for a brief moment, into a place where Londoners moved freely and felt at ease. In the arts, and especially with its festivals, Livingstone’s GLC proved that culture is not the monopoly of the upper classes.

Still, the facts and the folklore are very far apart. Again and again, Livingstone’s book disintegrates into irrelevant nostalgia. There is a lot of boasting about the GLC’s popularity. In the 1983 General Election, Livingstone claims, and in a series of polls in 1984, the Labour Party in London proved far more popular than the Labour Party anywhere else in the country. On and on rolls the boast, and the figures to support it. The conclusion is that Labour could learn a thing or two from the GLC about how to win elections.

I have just finished the book. It is August, 1987, and I am still suffering from the shock of that dreadful night in June when Labour made so little impact on the gigantic Thatcher majority. Could it be that Labour did so badly because they did not learn the lessons of Livingstone in London? Could anyone claim that Labour did better in London (where the GLC had been abolished only a year before) than in the rest of the country?

Exactly the opposite happened. Labour was pulverised in London. In Battersea and in Walthamstow seats were lost to the Tories – something which happened hardly anywhere else in Britain. Labour’s one triumph in 1987 – the smashing of the SDP – was not achieved in London. In the whole nation, only five SDP candidates were elected – two of them in traditional Liberal seats in the far north of Scotland and two in Labour’s heartlands in South-East London. (The fifth was the party leader, in Plymouth.) Labour’s candidate in the Greenwich by-election which started this rot was Deirdre Wood. She had been a tremendous supporter of Ken Livingstone and the GLC in the early Eighties. All the evidence from all the polls showed that the ‘London factor’, far from strengthening Labour, lost it votes. From Scotland, Wales and the North, old and new Labour MPs shouted for vengeance against Ken Livingstone and his ‘loony London Lefties’. They demanded a return to the bad old days of Labour MPs in suits; of decent respectable heterosexuality; of a Labour Party which preferred loyalty and obedient lobby fodder to the permissive indiscipline represented by Livingstone. Ken himself only just scraped home in a safe seat. His former allies who had found safe seats didn’t do much better. On all sides, Labour candidates who expected to make gains in London were frustrated by doorstep complaints about the ‘loony Left’, with special reference to the super-popular ‘Red Ken’. In the Greater London Labour Party, control of which was won for the Left with such painstaking organisation in the Sixties and Seventies, the balance has tipped sharply the other way and everywhere the few people who can be found to defend the GLC are in retreat.

It is no use Ken Livingstone arguing that this has happened because he is no longer in office. The whole political tide has turned against the things his administration stood for, particularly against those achievements of which he has most right to be proud. His boasting is quite ridiculous in the light of everything that has taken place since his book was written. It is of no use whatever to socialists who want to know why the tide has turned so sharply.

Much more sceptical, in spite of its ridiculously pretentious title, is the series of essays edited by two former employees of Livingstone’s GLC. These essays make less grandiose claims for the GLC, and are open about the reasons ‘so many hierarchies and relationships remained the same.’ They conclude that the GLC and its offshoot GLEB were, by and large, rotten employers, and that the efforts of the GLC idealists were far more successful in areas where the GLC had no power, and where Londoners were organised against their employers or government bodies such as the London Docks Development Corporation. They admit to what they call ‘an unresolvable tension’ which arises from trying to organise the resources of government against the Government. Elected government surrounded by capitalist power will, if left to itself, automatically behave in a reactionary fashion. The only hope of shifting it from reaction, they conclude, is to mobilise the people in need or under attack to take action against the Government.

The problem is that in the end the Government, which pays both the piper and the idealistic ‘popular planners’, will call the tune. Sooner or later, it will act to blunt or fudge the fighting spirit of the people who are being mobilised against it. A classic case is the work done by some of the contributors to this book among transport workers at Acton and at Aldenham. One shop steward put it bluntly: ‘Either you can fight and say no – forget the information or whatever it is, we’re going to fight for our jobs. Or you can go up the avenue you’re choosing, to seek to destroy the argument for closure.’ This was plainly the course favoured by the GLC workers. They did not recommend a strike. Instead, they offered to provide information which would prove that the case for privatisation and/or closure was wrong. They did so. They proved the case. They went on proving it all the way up to the closure of the two depots. Their limitations were clear from the outset. They could not, by virtue of their position as paid agents of the GLC, agitate for strike action. They could only provide information, so that when the workers were sacked, as almost all were, at least they knew they should not have been.

This hopeless contradiction haunts both these books from first to last. Ken Livingstone’s story ends in the shambles of the rate-capping debate, in which the GLC, having agreed not to set a rate in protest at the Government’s ‘capping’ what they could raise, was the first council openly to surrender and to set a rate within the limits set by the Government. The disputes which rent the GLC at the end of its life were every bit as nasty, as sectarian and as incomprehensible to most Londoners as any of the Left-Right faction fights of former years. But the reason for it harked back to the old contradiction. When the authority, elected within ‘the rules’ of the system, seeks to challenge that system by breaking the rules, the nerve of even the most hardened elected representative tends to crack.

On a more trivial level, the contradiction is exposed by a fascinating anecdote in Ken Livingstone’s book. When the Thames Barrier had to be formally opened, the idealists at the GLC assumed that their own leader, or perhaps some accredited representative of the workers, would do the honours. When the rank and file were consulted, however, they had a different view. Their choice fell, almost unanimously, on Her Majesty the Queen, and they made it clear that if she were not invited, they intended to strike and to picket the ceremony. On this occasion, at least, Ken Livingstone had no difficulty in acceding to the wishes of the rank and file. But the incident shows how very difficult it is to start the revolution from the top. Ken Livingstone writes that the rate-capping campaign ‘failed because it remained mired in the shadowboxing of Parliamentary and council chamber politics, with the work-force being wheeled on as a stage army when required’. The criticism extends far wider into the aspirations and activities of the GLC in its last five years.

The debilitating business of trying to change the world from the Leader’s Chair seems to have taken toll of Ken Livingstone himself. He was always one of the most engaging and attractive of modern socialists. He discloses in a brief aside that he was once an anarchist, which explains the book’s challenging title. Like some of the leaders of the Spanish Anarchist union, CNT, who went into the Republican Government during the Spanish Civil War, Ken Livingstone seemed for a long time to be immune from the trappings of high office. Like them, he had nothing but contempt for the sectarian jargon of his ‘minders’ and ‘advisers’, who learnt their socialism by rote. He spoke plainly and freely, often laughing at himself, but confident nevertheless; unfrightened by the hysterical bawling from the gutter. Like those Spanish anarchists, he proved as able an administrator, as patient a negotiator, as any hardened party politician of the old school. But, like them too, he is not Superman. In the end, the impotence of office ground him down. His book is witness to that. There is very little of the old sparkle in it. Almost all the first half is shockingly dull, a dreary tour round the infighting in Camden and Lambeth Councils, padded out with long extracts from newspapers. There is even a trace of pomposity. Explaining his support for John McDonnell as his vice-chairman, he writes: ‘I would prefer him to be my successor.’ Perhaps the first recorded evidence of the Divine Right of Kens.

Too much of his book reads like standard, stale political autobiography whose basic theme is that the author was right and everyone else (except his most slavish supporters) was wrong. As so often in such works, the politician sums himself up best when he attacks his adversaries. Describing ‘indecisive council leaders’ he has known, Livingstone writes: ‘They seemed to lack any firm ideological framework and were therefore simply driven by events.’ Yes, and the result of that can be pretty awful. As Ken Livingstone, on his very first page, writes of Harold Wilson (another most engaging leftwinger in his time): ‘Politicians who raise the hopes and capture the imaginations of ordinary women and men only to betray that trust do more to undermine faith in democracy than any fascist could do.’ The point is overstated, as usual, but it applies every bit as much to the GLC leadership of the Eighties as it did to Harold Wilson in the Sixties.