Lessons of Lambeth

Mike Phipps reviews Radical Lambeth 1978-91, by Simon Hannah, published by Breviary Stuff.

Lambeth is the second largest borough in inner London and by the end of the 1970s was the fourth most deprived area in the UK. Half the borough lived in council accommodation, often in a very poor state, and poverty and underinvestment ran deep.

Until the 1970s, the Council was dominated by a right wing bureaucracy operating a racist housing policy. The Labour Party was a closed circle, hostile to new recruits. The Council preferred to smash up houses it didn’t have the money to refurbish, rather than let them be occupied by homeless people and it took a major campaign by squatters to overturn this policy. The left won control in 1978 and Labour leader Ted Knight installed himself in the Town Hall, in contrast to his part-time predecessor. This new hands-on control provoked frequent clashes with unelected council officers.

The history of radical Lambeth is also the story of the Thatcher government’s attempts to curb local authority radicalism. Councils like Lambeth that refused to make cuts had grant clawed back by central government. Lambeth responded by calling a national ‘no cuts’ conference, pledging to oppose rent and rate increases, but later succumbing to both, thus undermining attempts to build a nationwide united front. Despite the revolutionary credentials of the Council leadership, it was the Town Hall unions that provided the backbone to the fight against the cuts – and to the Tory policy of selling council housing. The inability of Lambeth Council to get more grant from government, and anti-Labour mobilisations against big rate rises in the borough, led to a collapse in the Labour vote in 1982 from 50% to 33%.

 In 1983, Thatcher won re-election and the policy of central government rate-capping was introduced – the first time since 1601 that councils could not set their own rates. Attempts to forge a united response across local authorities by refusing to set a rate were undermined from the outset by the hostility of the Kinnock leadership of the Labour Party, as well as divisions among councils themselves. When both the (later abolished) Inner London Education Authority and the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone set a legal rate, “the campaign began to unravel like a cheap suit.”

Local authorities began to cave in when their policy of not setting a rate was overturned in the courts. The defeat of the miners’ strike ended all talk about bringing down the government and turned the retreat into a rout. Lambeth stood firm for longer than most and was fined for its efforts, its councillors surcharged and debarred from office.

But this wasn’t the end. In the 1986 local elections, Labour increased their number of councillors and the left was back in control, now under Linda Bellos. The new guard had less experience but it was also a significant break with the old left, exposing its nepotism and paternalistic practices within the Council. But it stumbled on terrain where it was ill-prepared for battle – like the attempt to rename 28 borough amenities without local consultation, or, later, the much-pilloried council meeting against the Gulf War in 1991.

Before that, Thatcher’s third term brought a further round of rate-capping and £60m of cuts, ”the largest Lambeth had faced in generations.” Attempts by the Bellos administration to implement targeted cuts led to accusations of betrayal and a complete breakdown in relations with Town Hall unions.

Central government had more punishment ready for local authorities. Compulsory Competitive Tendering required councils to award contracts to the most efficient bidder, usually a private operator employing workers on lower pay and worse conditions than in-house. To compete successfully against this, in-house bids required huge ‘savings’.

This was followed by the regressive Poll Tax, which provoked mass opposition. There were real problems, however, with a council-led campaign against the tax. Lambeth set its Poll Tax at an eye-watering £559.25 per person, based on an implausible 100% collection rate. Meanwhile the Labour Group, now under Joan Twelves, was proposing to not allocate new resources for implementing the tax and then not fining people who failed to register. This looked incoherent.

Mass protests ultimately defeated the Poll Tax and brought down Thatcher. Councils like Lambeth ended up sending in the bailiffs against non-payers.

But in the end, it was the Kinnock leadership that did what the Tory government had been unable to do. Using internal party procedures, it purged the left for “a sustained course of action prejudicial to the party”. Thirteen councillors, including Joan Twelves, were “internally exiled”: banned from office, banned from Labour Group meetings and banned from any Labour party meeting outside their own ward. The left’s control of Lambeth was over.

Simon Hannah’s narrative is rich with anecdotes and extends beyond Town Hall politics to take in other radical forces in Lambeth, in particular black resistance to police frame-ups and racist attacks, which led in 1980 to “the most serious urban disturbances of the 20th century.” There were further confrontations in 1985 after police shot and paralysed a black mother of five in her own home. In the ensuing protests, police attacked local reporters and later used dogs to break up a support meeting involving local councillors.

But overall, his analysis of this decade of struggle could be stronger. I don’t think Lambeth was “one of the last bastions of municipal socialism”, partly because for most of the time during which the left was in control, it was locked in a defensive struggle to safeguard existing jobs and services, with little opportunity to think creatively about improved quality. Some of problems were self-inflicted, if only because it was fighting on too many ideological fronts. On the other hand, some of its efforts, much vilified at the time, on LGBT rights for example, helped change the political culture.

Lambeth’s well-organised workforce was very effective at defending jobs and conditions, but that could also be an impediment to creative thinking and service improvement. In any case, union militancy declined when central government changed the rules and forced through outsourcing. And this was the problem with the local government battles of the 1980s: the Tory government held all the cards.  It was out to screw councils like Lambeth. It could legislate to do so and therefore any resistance invariably put councils on the wrong side of the law, leading to takeover by the district auditor and the forced removal of councillors.

To defend services, councils were on collision course with government, facing poor odds in a high-stakes contest. Without mass protests, they couldn’t win. When such protests did occur, as over the Poll Tax, local authorities were marginal to the struggle.

Lambeth is back in the news today for all the wrong reasons, as more detail emerges of the systematic abuse in children’s care homes in the borough, dating back decades. Some have tried to make political capital out of the fact that the left was in charge of the Council when these abuses first came to light, but we should remember similar abuses occurred elsewhere in the capital under far more experienced administrations of a very different complexion.

One thing is clear: the political war waged by central government and their friends in the media on so-called ‘loony left’ councils – complete with highly personalised attacks on individual councillors – made it harder for the latter to do their jobs effectively. A quick read through Tory Cabinet minister Michael Heseltine’s gleeful  speech to the House of Commons, chortling at Labour’s disciplining of the thirteen Lambeth councillors in March 2021 underlines that it was invariably the Tories who were ‘playing at politics’ in those days.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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