Illusions of Power: The Labour Left, Local Government, and the Challenge of Thatcherism: part 1

Submitted by AWL on 9 November, 2008 - 1:26 Author: Mick O'Sullivan and Martin Thomas

“Having shown first that everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously, since even in the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatever... there is contained a specific conception of the world, one then moves onto the second level, which is that of awareness and criticism.

That is to say, one proceeds to the question-is it better to 'think’ without having a critical awareness, in a disjointed and episodic way? In other words, is it better to take part in a conception of the world mechanically imposed by the external environment ... ?

Or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one's own conception of the world and thus, in connection with the labours of one's own brain, choose one's sphere of activity, take an active part in the creation of the history of the world, be one's own guide, refusing to accept passively and supinely from outside the moulding of one's personality?"

Antonio Gramsci, 'Prison Notebooks', p.323-4.


The new Labour Left

The turmoil of the late 1960s and early '70s massively increased the numbers of the far left in Britain. When the organised Marxist groups grew, none of them was able to unite a majority of the new leftists round- a coherent programme. Moreover, the faults of the organised groups - sectarian tactics, political instability - helped to scatter the new left.

Many activists joined an organised group and then left; others confined their activity to broader campaigns and movements.

From the early or mid-'70s these leftists joined the Labour Party in increasing numbers.

While they have never been a homogeneous grouping the new Labour leftists are marked off from the traditional Tribunite Labour left.

With experience gained from movements outside of the Labour Party such as the women's movement, and ideas heavily influenced by Marxism, they wanted to breathe life into the party other than at election time. They brought the issues of women's, gay and black oppression, and the question of Ireland, sharply into the mainstream labour movement for the first time for decades. And this 'new left' saw the working class, rather than parliament, as the focus of politics (though, as we shall see, over time it has moved away from this working class focus).

Such politics could not remain static. Either the new leftists were going to be assembled round a serious Marxist orientation, or they would be shaped by events and beaten down to conformity.

The routines and structures of the Labour Party - as of the trade unions, in which most of them were also active - pushed them towards piecemeal campaigning, 'power politics', reformism. A lot of activity - inevitably -centred around organisational reforms in the Labour Party and contests to replace rightwingers by left-wingers. Such a focus militated against political clarification or differentiation within the Left.

Yet for some years it all seemed to work. From 1979 to early 1982, at least, the Labour Party moved steadily leftwards.

Three-and-a-half years on, Neil Kinnock has unravelled many of the gains. He has, however temporarily restored 'order' to the Labour Party.

His success is one link in a whole chain of defeats suffered by the movement. Under these blows, the left itself is fragmenting, and many have moved towards the Party centre.

While industrial defeats like the steelworkers' and the miners' have helped provide stability for Kinnock. the cogwheel that has geared so many of the Labour new left into convergence with Kinnock has been the local government experience.

The new leftists who entered local government have failed the test of the class struggle; and in so doing they have begun to transform themselves from socialists into tame radicals, and to teach others to transform themselves likewise.

The story is by no means finished. Large sections of the Left still want to fight. The formation of a coherent Marxist force always proceeds through struggles, setbacks, demarcations in which parts of what was previously the 1eft' hive off to the right. But the experience can be put to good account only if we learn the lessons, rigorously and unflinchingly. The purpose of this survey is to help in that process.

Local Government

In 1974 the Tory government replaced the previous variegated structure of local government in~-Britain by a system of fewer and larger authorities. Council bureaucracies became more powerful, under the slogan of 'corporate management’ payment for councillors was introduced. Local government became a much more professional, big-business operation.

This was a logical sequel of the rapid expansion of local government over the 20th century and especially since World War 2. The local
authority workforce had risen from 1.4 million in 1945 to 2.5 million in the mid '70s. Over the 1 960s local authority spending had risen 170% while gross national product rose only 80%.

The current system has two main tiers. Scotland has nine regional councils (e.g. Lothian, Strathclyde) and below them 53 district councils (e.g. Edinburgh, Glasgow). The regional councils run transport police, fire services, education, and social services. The districts run housing and waste collection.

In England and Wales there are 54 councils roughly corresponding to Scottish regions - metropolitan authorities (e.g. Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Greater London) or counties. Below them come 401 district councils (e.g. Liverpool, Sheffield, London boroughs).

In the metropolitan areas the division of functions is different from in Scotland. The district councils are much more important running education and social services as well as housing and waste collection. The metropolitan councils are left with transport, police and fire.

Outside the metropolitan areas - in the English 'shires' and in Wales - the division is similar to Scotland.

London is different again. The GLC does not run police, nor (since summer 1984) transport; they are directly controlled by central government. The London boroughs run housing, social services, waste collection and - in outer London - education. Inner London education is run neither by the boroughs, nor by the GLC, but by the Inner London Education Authority, made up of councillors appointed by the GLC and the boroughs.

The system for elections is complicated. Some authorities are elected for four year periods, others have elections for one-third of their seats in three years out of every four. The result is that there are local government elections of some sort in May of every year.

Local government is financed partly by central government grant, partly by rates (a local property tax), and partly by rents and other charges received by the councils. Education is by far the largest item of local government revenue spending, housing dominates capital spending. Debt charges are a major item of revenue spending, averaging 5 to 20% of the total and more in some authorities.

When the Labour government began cutting central government grants after 1975, some Labour councils compensated by raising the rates. In April 1979, Islington Brent Camden and Lambeth ah levied big increases, up to 40%.

But overall, between 1974-5 and 1978-9, average domestic rates paid in England and Wales increased by 2.6% less than the general Retail Price Index. Not until Thatcher's class-war government moved into action against the councils did rate increases begin to explode. Between 1978-9 and 1982-3, average domestic rates paid went up 42% more than the Retail Price Index -and much faster in some areas.

The Tories, aim was not only to save central government money, but to bring down local government expenditure and local government workforces.

Their success with this has been limited. Local authority spending in 1982-3 was 12.8% of gross domestic product-the same percentage as in 1978-9. The local authority workforce, in March 1983, was just 4.1% smaller than it had been in March 1979 (in full-time-equivalent terms). Compared with manufacturing industry, local government is relatively unscathed.

The Tories have repeatedly run into problems with their plans for local government. The Local Government and Land Bill of 1979 had to be completely rewritten before it could be got through Parliament. A proposal to make councils call referendums over rate rises had to be dropped altogether. A Bill to enable central government to remove the
GLC and met authorities, and run their functions directly, from April 1985, was defeated in the House of Lords and had to be abandoned.

Measures put into law, like council house sales, have often failed to produce the results the Tories hoped for.

The government has put a lot of effort into pressurising councils to privatise. But only 18 councils out of 318 who replied to a 'Local Government Chronicle' survey in mid-'84 had privatised waste collection, though 99 had considered it.

Only three had privatised road sweeping, six toilet-cleaning, and four part or all of their in school cleaning.

This year the Tories are introducing a law to ~make competitive tendering compulsory for a whole range of specific services - waste collection, cleaning of buildings, vehicle maintenance, catering services. The Secretary of State will have power to set aside the results of the tendering.

Not many of the Tories' difficulties, unfortunately, can be attributed to Labour councils' resistance. State spending is central to modern capitalism's processes of self-reproduction, and cannot be easily cut even by the most vicious government. Central: government spending, after all, rose between 1978-9 and 1982-3 from 32.5% to 37.2% of gdp.

Over many of its measures, the Tory government has run into problems with Tory councils.

Complacency would be foolish. Cuts which are marginal in terms of total spending are often cruel in terms of. particular services. Over the last ten years, the lifeblood has been dripping away from local authorities.

The Tories see the future of local services as 'Americanisation', with little labour directly employed and councils just coordinating the different sub-contractors running a range of cut-down services.

Yet local government still is - and certainly was in 1979 - a powerful force.

2.9 million workers, including part-timers, are employed in local Government.

Often the council's is the largest single workforce in a district, and the backbone of organised labour there. It is difficult to see how UCATT, for example, could survive without the council DLOs. Two of Britain's five biggest unions, NUPE and NALGO, are heavily based in local government.

The inner cities -the heartland of Labour support-have the greatest concentration of local authority workers, of 'new left' councillors, and of the most militant CLPs. Beside them stand tenants on the estates, the unemployed and the youth, all living on the front line of Thatcher's Britain.

Enormous power could be mobilised by a determined leadership in local government. Yet it never has been organised. The riots of 1981, which were completely outside the labour movement were the nearest we have come to the inner cities being mobilised.

Instead of mobilising, councils have gone for doing the best they can within the Tories limits. In the one area where the new left's words can be translated into direct action, they have been administrators, not fighters. A few councils have gone to the brink – and then retreated, keeping their powder dry for better days.

By the test of the class struggle, the local government left has failed.

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