Socialism in one city?

Mike Phipps reviews Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, by Owen Hatherley, published by Repeater Books.

The UK’s capital city dominates the country in a way few other capitals do. The combination of Westminster and the City, its huge population and commuter belt encompassing 14 million people, makes London a city five times bigger than its nearest UK rivals. It also helps make Britain the most regionally unequal country in Europe.

Yet despite its prosperity, London is a centre of local socialism, governed nationally by a party “that has as little legitimacy there as the Conservatives did in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s.” Interestingly too, the capital’s two most radical experiments in municipal socialism, in the 1930s and 1980s, were the response of London Labour to catastrophic defeats at the national level.

The name of Herbert Morrison “has usually been mud on the Labour left,” acknowledges Owen Hatherley. But one of the reasons why Morrison’s version of nationalisation became Labour Party policy was that the nationalised entity he created over a decade earlier, London Transport, was so successful.  Another key policy of Morrison’s London County Council (LCC), also foreshadowing a major plank of the post-war Attlee government, was the green belt.

Photographs of urban architecture abound throughout his book, conveying a real sense of the importance of design and planning in the creation of a human city. Hatherley argues that the LCC’s Architects’ Department was “one of the few places where the extra-parliamentary left had significant impact.”

By the 1960s, despite the emergence of ‘swinging London’, inner London was in decline, with more people in Greater London living outside the old County of London than within it. The creation of a Greater London Council, whereby the suburbs would pay their fair share of tax for the inner city they commuted to, divided the Labour Party, because it would also dilute the electorate and allow the Conservatives to win control – which is exactly what happened.  From 1964 on, however, London borough councils were also given much more power to build council housing, with quite divergent results.

In 1981, the New Left took control of the GLC. Its leader, Ken Livingstone, hailed this as “ the post-1968 generation in politics”. Many of the key figures in the Corbyn project over 30 years later played a key role in this process – above all, John  McDonnell, the GLC’s second in command and finance chief.

Crucially, despite the extra-parliamentary left origins of many of its key players, the new GLC was not sectarian and sought to build bridges to the old trade union left.  From what I remember of the period, the fight to defend local government and the year-long miners’ strike were the two key battles of Margaret Thatcher’s second term. Both were defeated and the GLC was even abolished.

As Doreen Massey has observed, this defeat was inflicted not just by “Thatcher and her troops, but also the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party and those elements across the political spectrum that took it upon themselves to sneer at the attempt to develop a politics that was feminist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic, as well as challenging to capital.” Even into the late 1990s, Tony Blair was arguing that Ken Livingstone as mayor would be a “disaster” for London.

Hatherley reads the GLC era differently: the start of the multicultural capital of the ‘creative industries’, a London open for business, intent on reversing its decline. This meant improving the city’s infrastructure, above all proper investment for its transport network, with integrated cheap ticketing – although the pioneering “Fares Fair” policy would be overturned in the courts.

Hatherley catalogues the real achievements of the GLC, in regeneration, support for small and cooperative enterprises and improved job opportunities for people from ethnic minority backgrounds. There was also a significant cultural difference in its espousal of internationalism and celebration of London’s ethnic and religious diversity. Despite the constant demonization of London’s ‘loony left’ in the press, the GLC’s policies were also very popular.

Unable to defeat these initiatives democratically, the Thatcher government resorted to anti-democratic measures. As well as scrapping the GLC, it also gave a whole swathe of east London to the London Docklands Development Corporation, the largest regeneration project in the world at that time.  It was a developer’ playground, with no democratic supervision, and it built not a single new council house.

It took the re-election of a Labour government nationally to restore London-wide government, 14 years after the GLC was abolished. But in keeping with Tony Blair’s “mortal hatred of local democracy”, the new governing body – a US-style executive mayor – “was a barely democratic shadow of the GLC.”  Bureaucratically blocked from being the Labour candidate, Ken Livingstone was elected mayor as an independent, by a landslide. Yet, as Hatherley rightly notes, this was “no return to the insurgent popular socialism that had distinguished the GLC.”

However, Livingstone did oversee the most ambitious transformation of London transport since the Morrison era, introducing the Congestion Charge, vastly more cycle lanes than anywhere else in the country and more buses and bus lanes, leading to a massive expansion in usage.  He also oversaw the creation of London Overground, the first new trams since the 1950s and the Oyster smartcard. Even so, the mayor’s popular transport policies often faced opposition from the New Labour government, keen to part-privatise the tube.

Yet London actually became more unequal under Livingstone’s rule. Despite his creative use of existing legislation to make developers build affordable housing as 50% of all new projects, the lack of a definition of affordability or clear regulation meant the results were, in Hatherley’s judgment “pathetic”.  As London’s population grew, the total disappearance of new council housebuilding and the effects of Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ led to a yawning ‘rent gap’ and a massive rise in landlordism.

These problems worsened under Mayor Boris Johnson, as foreign investors, often encouraged by London borough councils, took advantage of the property boom.  As housing need became more desperate, up to 11% of dwellings in Belgravia and Kensington remained vacant. Yet inner London Labour councils responded by demolishing estates and selling the land to developers, with “affordable housing” now defined at an unaffordable level of 80% of market rent.

Ironically it was Tory Westminster Council in the 1980s that pioneered this policy – deliberately replacing council housing with luxury accommodation in order to gentrify the borough and make it less likely to vote Labour. Hatherley finds it incredible that local Labour councils did the same in the 21st century. Between 2005 and 2015, 50 council estates with a population of 30,000 were ‘regenerated’, increasing tenfold the number of private houses in the estates and cutting 8,000 social homes.  Johnson actively helped this process along.

In 2016, Labour’s Sadiq Khan became mayor. Extreme caution has characterised his term, even as London’s problems drastically worsen.  Although more council houses have been built in the last four years than at any time since the early 1980s, it has barely dented the problem. “London,” says Hatherley, “is now a metropolis which cannot even discover who its landlords are, which can barely build housing of its own, and whose policies are dictated by a government with very little representation within it.”

In 2017, London voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. This is often ascribed to ‘culture wars’ factors, but economic issues, and housing especially, were more important. “Londoners were voting further left than anywhere else because they had less disposable income than anywhere else, worse housing than anywhere else, and were more obviously exploited than anyone else.”  These truths were tragically underlined by the Grenfell Tower fire.

What are the prospects for a resurgence of the left in London?  On paper, not bad: the influx of new Labour members has already led to some interesting changes, such as the deselection in 2016 of the leader of Newham Council since 1995, Sir Robin Wales, who had “essentially turned one of the poorest places in the country into an enormous property business.”

A backlash against gentrification in Southwark saw the resignation of the council leader and a plan introduced to build 11,000 new council homes.  A more famous battle took place in Haringey, but despite all the talk of ‘community wealth building’ in the style of Preston Council, Hatherley feels Haringey failed at the first hurdle, by moving to demolish a Latin American market in the borough. On the other hand, the council, alongside Islington and Hackney, has introduced a London Living Wage.

Grounds for hope are strengthened by both the 2017 and 2019 general election results in London. “If London were representative of the rest of the country, Labour would have won by a crushing landslide,” argues the author.

London is also the youngest part of the UK by some distance. Rather than working class voters shifting to the Tories in 2019, arguably the opposite has occurred. “On a classical definition, of people who have to sell their labour power to survive and do not own property, London is the most proletarian city in the country,” argues Hatherley. Contrast this with the high levels of home ownership in much of the ‘red wall’. Yet it’s the London ‘metropolitan elite’ that is frequently blamed for Labour’s losses.

London’s radicalism could be set to continue, but it faces some important institutional obstacles. First, the imposition of crushing austerity cuts by central government curtails councils’ freedom to manoeuvre. Second, since the removal under Thatcher of their power to collect and spend local business rates, councils are unable to raise enough money to do what they need.

Third, for the first time, the government last year used its power to reject the mayor’s London Plan, on the grounds it was too radical. “A deeply centrist London mayor is now effectively being told to ‘drop dead’ by the government.” Since this book was written, furthermore, bust-ups between Sadiq Khan and central governing over the funding of Transport for London, which is suffering a major shortfall of cash due to the COVID lockdown, show that the relationship remains sour.

Hatherley ends his book by suggesting that London’s government needs, firstly, to prepare for more confrontation with Whitehall; secondly, to consciously reject the idea of the city’s population continuing to grow; and thirdly, to look closely at what has been achieved by other city governments, such as Paris. These are good ideas but need to be considerably expanded.

There is a telling anecdote in the book, revealing how the left too often focuses on issues over which it has little practical control, at the expense of unglamorous local politics where it can be more effective. As the 1930s and 1980s underlined, with national politics closed off to the left, municipal organising in London could prove to be a game-changer.

Hatherley’s passion for London should inspire socialists elsewhere to take a fresh look at the importance of organising locally to take over the town hall. The corruption, incompetence and ideological posturing that has characterised the Johnson government’s response to the COVID crisis have underlined the importance of high quality local government in delivering clear messaging, effective test and trace systems and accessible vaccines. The more central government fails across a range of policy areas, the more local councils will need to step up to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.

There’s another reason for the left to work more seriously at local level. There were many reasons why Labour lost the last election, but one thing is clear: the 2019 general election demonstrated that local government was Labour’s Achilles heel, a fortress of right wing managerialism in many areas, which was indistinguishable from the Tories to many voters.

Unless the left can show that Labour is different locally, then even the most radical leadership at the national level may not cut through to the voters where it most needs to.  Hopefully, this enthusiastic book can inspire activists in this direction.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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