Illusions of Power part 2: Promise and retreat

Submitted by AWL on 8 November, 2008 - 2:18 Author: Mick O'Sullivan and Martin Thomas

Something of a local government left had begun to emerge in the early '70s, talking about 'participation' and 'the community'.

In Socialist Organiser of March 1979, Mike Ward (now Ken Livingstone's deputy at the GLC) reflected on the experience of one of these Wandsworth. It had fallen to the Tories in the 1978 elections.

"The Labour Group rejected all cuts. Building programmes were maintained, no staff were sacked no posts frozen, no social service charges increased - in fact, many were reduced or abolished, and all means tests went, too.

"Wandsworth was short of facilities for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. It was short of day centres for the elderly, and above all of nurseries. Building of all these was stepped up... A programme of factory building, and assistance to worker cooperatives, was established to try to reduce local unemployment.

"And in both 1977 and 1978, the rates went up by 25%..."

Why the defeat? Ward cited two lessons: the need "to campaign continuously and publicly", and the fact that "rate-raising as a 'means of building socialism' can only go so far: valuable gains can be made and services improved. But in the end you are relieving poverty by taxing the poor".

Labour councils, he concluded must instead look towards "a confrontation with the government and the financial institutions".

Very soon after the Tories' general election victory in May 1979 they announced a 3% cut in councils' money. Clearly there would be more to


The case against rate rises became stronger. At the best of times rates are a tax which hits sections of the badly-off harder than the wealthy. The poor spend a bigger proportion of their income on housing than the rich, and rates are a tax on housing.

Rate rebates are is supposed to equalise, but like every means-test system they are seriously faulty.

Middle-class people and small shopkeepers also suffer badly from rate rises. Socialists are not the champions of small shopkeepers: but for Labour to try to load the brunt of the economic crisis onto these middle-class people would be stupid and dangerous.

Under the new Tory regime, rate rises would not even pay for improvements. At best they would compensate for the cuts in central government money, and thus allow services to be maintained. They would in effect be an alternative less hateful, form of cut.

Instead of bringing the tremendous forces in local government to the fore of the fight against the Tories, a rate-rise policy would leave Labour councils trying to work the Tory system as benevolently as possible.


Such were the arguments deployed by supporters of Workers' Action (the majority in SO) when a broad spectrum of the London Labour left met on June 16 1979 to debate local government strategy.

But the majority of the conference - including Mike Ward! - recoiled from an immediate fight.

All the arguments which were to be duplicated in countless wards, CLPs, trade union branches and cuts conferences over the next few year' came out in the June 1979 debate.

Some people - notably Keith Veness and Ken Livingstone - argued flatly that rate rises were progressive because they redistributed income.

Others were more cautious. Mike Davis of the 'Chartist' group said that rate rises were no solution, but could be justified as a measure to gain time and prepare for struggle at a future, better date.


That the gist of the matter was the left recoiling from struggle was confirmed spectacularly three weeks later. Ted Knight, who had been prominent in the June conference arguing for rate rises as a way of combating cuts, pushed a 41/z% cubs package through Lambeth council.

Rate rises had been a preparation not for a fight but for cuts.

Many on the rate-rise left were shocked. Ken Livingstone, then a left oppositionist within Camden council and the GLC, commented: "After all the posturing as Marxist Lambeth, already the right wing councillors here say we'll do no more than Lambeth. The real tragedy, is that Ted [Knight] has given a cover for every right winger to put through cuts".

A special conference of the boroughs four CLPs rejected the cuts and also the alternative of a supplementary rate. 'Lambeth Fightback' was formed by the Trades Council. Knight bowed to the pressure and deftly converted himself~ from a cutter to a leader of the fight against the cuts (though the council still refused to implement a maternity/paternity deal already negotiated with NALGO).

Lambeth became a national focus against the government's attack on councils. Street meetings door-to-door leafleting, workplace meetings, a London-wide demonstration, all began to mobilise a mass movement. Despite the council's shady record, the response was tremendous.

But what was this mobilisation about? What was its purpose? Against cuts and the Tory government. But what about the rates'

Despite the Lambeth Labour Parties' position, Knight made his view quite clear at a London Labour Party conference on the cuts on September 22.

Jenny Morris reported in Socialist Organiser: "Knight used the; same arguments ~ [as the right wing] for refusing to follow the example of Poplar in 1921. The Town Hall unions won't stand for empty wage packets, he told the conference. His answer was rate increases rather than cuts".

As many other council leaders would do later, Knight used the trade union card against the Left. The mechanism is simple enough.

The councillors devise schemes to buy their way out of trouble through rate rises, and then appeal to narrow trade-unionism among the leaders of the council workers. Rate rises will buy secure jobs for their members, he cost will be diffused over wide sections of the middle class and working class, as well as businesses.

The council leaders' determination to raise the rates, and the use of the unions to justify this, made the mobilisation in Lambeth a hollow shell, a protest cut off from any serious agitation for industrial action or council defiance. Only gestures and rhetoric distinguished Lambeth from the other boroughs which without the same glitter made the same rate rises as 'Marxist' Lambeth.

The potential was there for a fight: 60,000 had demonstrated in work time on November 28. In April 1980 Knight pushed through a 49.4% rate rise and ÂŁ1.50 rent rise.

Lothian Regional Council had also organised a big campaign against cuts. There, the council was committed by a Regional Labour Party aggregate in January 1980 to no rate rise, too.

The trade union factor was again crucial in getting a 40-odd per cent rate rise on budget day.


The Labour Left had not been able to develop any alternative leadership in the unions, based on the rank and file. And so it collapsed.

In SO, by this time, the rate-rise issue was no longer an ideological disagreement, but the index of a radical division in orientations. Many of the pro-rate-rise minority quit SO in early 1980. Some dropped into individual activism. Some - like Ken Livingstone -continued to contribute to SO. The majority of the 'Chartist' group faded away producing a discussion magazine geared to the LCC/Marxism Today milieu. The more revolutionary-spirited 'Chartist' minority launched London Labour Briefing.

Briefing no.l, in February 1980, made its main aim clear: the selection and the election (in May 1981) of a left-wing GLC. Round this project it managed to group a large readership.

But on the Labour Left overall the argument was gaining ground that an immediate fight was, after all, necessary.

The battle for Labour Party democracy was at its height. Labour was riding high in the opinion polls. The Labour Left was confident.

At the June 1979 conference the Workers' Action motion against rate rises had been defeated by two-to-one. At a similar conference in July 1980 called by Briefing, a similar motion from Louise Christian failed only narrowly.


When Lambeth called two national cuts conferences in November 1980 and January 1981, big majorities voted for no rate rise. By autumn 1981, the Tories were introducing a system of grant penalties for councils making big rate rises. Tribune came out against rate rises, so did Labour Herald, just launched by Knight and Livingstone; so, even, did Briefing.

Yet this majority among activists for a confrontation did not manage to compel any council to follow its way of thinking.

The November 1980 conference called for no cuts, no rate rises, and no council house sales. Lambeth council, which had been part of convening the conference, made a supplementary rate and continued to sell council houses.

When questioned by Socialist Organiser, Ted Knight explained: "The conference was a platform from which guidelines were drawn. They also called on the TUC to prepare a general strike. That's fine but I don't necessarily think that we are guided by every resolution that was passed..."

He refused even to say unequivocally that Lambeth would make no cuts in April 1980. "We could take the stand that we would make no cuts. But it requires more than one council taking that decision. You're not suggesting that we should take a decision now that the council should go bankrupt... We’ll have to make an evaluation. We'll have to consult the trade unions".

In fact, Lambeth, panicked by the wave of ~ tenants' meetings angry at its supplementary rate, made 10% cuts in April 1980.

Knight used the trade-union card again, having persuaded most of the manual workers' leaders in Lambeth that limited cuts were- better than the risks of a confrontation. And in the conferences he also used the trade-union card in a different way.

On September 27 1980 SO noted that "The statement [for the November conference] hinges the whole cuts fight on a general strike by council workers in January 1981. The unvoiced let-out clause is that if the unions do not meet this arbitrary deadline, then the Labour councils will... include cuts and rate rises in next spring's budget".

This device has been used again and again. Leftists call for an all-out fight by the whole working class. Given the nature of the official leadership, this does not happen. (Ron Keating, then assistant general secretary of NUPE, spoke at the November Lambeth conference strongly supporting business as usual with rate rises to protect members' jobs. "My members are not going to be kamikaze pilots"). The leftists then use the absence of an across the-board fight to argue that they can do nothing on their own.


But now the left looked for something better from the new GLC.

Livingstone's election as GLC leader in May 1981, coming a few months after the national victory over Labour Party democracy at Wembley, seemed to offer a new beginning. Briefing exclaimed triumphantly: "London's ours!"

As far back as March 1979 Livingstone-then a one-man band-had been trying to get the left to take the GLC election seriously. In Socialist Organiser he complained that "The left has given no thought to the impending GLC elections... those who have a commitment to a socialist GLC need to start organising now".

The emergence of Briefing meant that a large section of the new left was swung behind Livingstone's project. And not only that. The Briefing left did more than just work with Livingstone. They took his project as their own. Their 'Marxism' served to rationalise the left-GLC project as 'a struggle for power', but not to challenge its limitations in reality.

A number of left-wingers had been elected, particularly in marginals and where the previous councillor was not standing again. The GLC manifesto had declared: "A Labour GLC and ILEA will resist any cuts and demand that the Tory government provides the necessary finance to maintain and improve all council services. Understanding that the Tory government does not listen to pleas but only responds to pressure, a Labour GLC and ILEA will appeal to the labour and trade union movement to take action including industrial action to support this stand."

Livingstone backed this up. "Wherever there is an industrial dispute in London, we shall go down and support it... We'll use the whole structure of the GLC to support grade unionists in struggle throughout London... and work with the trade unions to try to bring this government down ahead of its time."

The Labour GLC would lead the struggle, he pledged, rather than waiting until someone else had mobilised the whole working class. "We've formed a Briefing group, analogous to the Tribune group in Parliament, and a majority in the next Labour group has been attending it." Accountability would be strengthened. "There will be no U-turns".

The new left wanted to turn outwards, opening up the structures to a whole range of different pressure groups. And initially, as the above statements testify, they saw the working class as central. The GLC was to be an adjunct to workers' struggles.

But in concrete detail the GLC manifesto contained nothing more radical than cheap fares. The majority of the GLC Labour group was at best old-style centre-left. Livingstone's election as leader was mostly due to successful politicking with this centre-left. Amid the general excitement, Socialist Organiser warned:

"40-odd Labour men and women on the GLC can never beat the Tories without an organised mass campaign behind them. Many of the left GLC candidates have already supported climbdowns from left manifestos on borough councils... Socialist Organiser says: Organise the Left in the Labour Party on a clear fighting policy, to mobilise support behind the Labour GLC when it fights the Tories, and to lead independently if it wavers or cops out".

We noted that Livingstone had defined himself as part of a broad Labour left current which "may not be ideologically perfect" but has “a strong commitment to make sure [the policies] are implemented”, in contrast to the “some of the more theoretical tendencies”.

“Better”, we commented, “someone who doesn’t read Marx but who starts a real fight against the Tories and the right wing, than a Marxist for whom each book leads only to the next book and never to action... "But is theory so useless? Or is it just mis-used?

"The Labour Left's policies have not failed for lack of energetic people. They have failed because they are based on no clear theoretical understanding of capitalist society and the conservative forces within it. Efforts to get the capitalist state to legislate harmony and justice are bound to end in farce.

"What is to stop the current London Labour programme becoming equally utopian? What is to stop the GLC Labour Left ending up like the Camden Council Labour left (of which Ken Livingstone is also part) who approved cuts for the sake of making a compromise with the Labour Right and thus stopping the Labour Right doing a deal with the Tories?

"The Camden council left's compromise... was based on an overemphasis on 'getting something done' in the council chamber and the corridors, at the expense of a broader political view... The same over-emphasis could be fatal for the Labour GLC".

These warnings were proven justified with eerie rapidity. A 15% pay demand by London Transport underground crews began to cause trouble less than a month after the GLC election. The NUR's right-wing general secretary, Sid Weighell, undoubtedly used the issue to do as much damage as possible to the left-wing GLC. But the basic fact was that the newly elected council went against the very direct interests of London workers by not awarding the pay rise. (15% was not a wild or ridiculous demand .inflation was then around 12%, and the GLC offered 8%).

The GLC looked at the issue as administrators, not from a class standpoint. To meet the NUR pay claim, said Livingstone, "would require a supplementary rate and lead to some grant losses".

Meanwhile ILEA was reneging on the Labour promise to cut school meal prices. Because of the fear of surcharge the Labour group split providing a majority for the status quo.

The political impact of these climbdowns, however, was thoroughly confused by other events at same time. Fascinated and horrified, the media were running a huge campaign against 'Red Ken'.

On July 2l Livingstone welcomed the mother of one of the H-Block hunger strikers to County Hall, and declared support for their cause. He rejected an invitation to the Royal Wedding and called for the abolition of the monarchy. On August 18 he made a speech to a gay group supporting gay rights and declared basically "everyone is bisexual".

The same month, Livingstone declared: "There can be no doubt that we are now entering the final phase of the struggle again Tories".

In the meantime, however Lothian Regional Council was coming eyeball-to-eyeball with the Tories the second time. And Livingstone did nothing to put the GLC on the line together with Lothian.

The Tories had introduced legislation for Scotland giving them the power
directly to order cuts. this, they lopped ÂŁ47 million Lothian. The council could not up for it with a rate rise, even if they wanted to: the cut was made in t e. middle of a financial year, and mi year supplementary rates had always been illegal in Scotland.

The council promised defiance. Shop stewards voted for strike~ action. But once again the official trade union leadership sabotaged the struggle. Alistair MacRae, a local official and also a leading figure in NUPE nationally, was to the fore. It was better, he insisted, to ha cuts and keep Labour in office than to risk defiance - which, in event of defeat, would mean a takeover.

On September l the councillors collapsed. In their panic, they initial cut three times as much as the Tories ordered, sacking 900 teachers! The rout of the Left was complete when the council met again to cancel some of the panic decisions and make l more measured cuts. Jimmy Burnet, the most left-wing councillor who in 1979-80 had signed an S appeal for 'no cuts, no rate rise, explained that he would be voting for the second cuts package.

If those cuts were not adopted, he explained, a bigger Tory package would go through. "I wouldn't underestimate the ability of working people to understand the position of pragmatic realism..."

At the May 1982 elections, Labour was voted out in Lothian and replaced by a Tory administration.

The next big test marked the end of a whole period. Lord Denning ruled the GLC's cheap fares illegal and the Law Lords backed him up.

There could not have been a clearer issue on which to take on the Tories. As Jeremy Corbyn explained in SO: "Denning... shows that the Tory establishment was quite prepared to use extra-parliamentary means to defeat socialist measures.. We must warn the whole Establishment that if it is 'illegal’ for democratically elected councils to keep their pledges to the electorate, then... we must look outside the courts, parliament and council chambers for support..."

The unions, though not militant did mumble about action rather than telling the council to knuckle under. The Labour Left, despite the demoralising Duke-of-York affairs in Lambeth and Lothian, was still strong.

But on January 12 the GLC voted to obey the courts and raise the fares again.

Livingstone came out formally for defiance. But he did not fight for it.

As on the rates issue in March 1985, he used a technique described by Roy Shaw, centre-left former leader of Camden council, as follows: "His ploy was to put forward an outrageous proposition, knowing full well that it would not be accepted- not really believing it himself...

"Sometimes he did it so blatantly than in speaking to the motion he would say: I fully appreciate that there may well be members here who cannot support this motion, people. who can't risk surcharge. He was more or less saying: for heaven's sake don't vote for this. And of course it would be defeated..." (Quoted in John Carvel, 'Citizen Ken', p.65-6).

And so the council could take a safe line while the council leader retained his left credentials.

Briefing, in an agonised and contorted editorial, came out behind Livingstone: the GLC had not had the "power" to defeat the Tories, so for the time being "The task is to stay in office and add to our power by winning, first, the borough elections... "

Socialist Organiser commented: "You talk about doing better next time, in a different fight later. But if the GLC left will not fight for its major manifesto plank, what will it fight for? Comrades, the class struggle is always now... "

This collapse closed a whole period. As Carvel puts it "on or about January 12 1982, Livingstone's GLC went legit".

The Left was demoralised and demobilised. Simultaneously, the right and centre-left began to regain their grip on the Labour Party, and the Tories seized the political initiative with the Falklands war.

By 1983 Livingstone was giving a very different account of the GLC
"The GLC has a very limited range of responsibilities and powers, and nothing that the Labour GLC does challenge the structure. It raises issues, it promotes campaigns, it makes small shifts in wealth - they're all things that a Thatcher government could live with if the truth were told...

"Local government is not going to bring down central government. It never has been a possibility... We're not in a position of being able to initiate, because we aren't in a position to mobilise the sort of forces required... without the trade unions mobilised behind the Labour Party locally or nationally, there's a very limited amount you can do..." (Socialist Organiser, 16.6.83).

Graham Bash of Briefing made a similar valuation: "The GLC campaign has been a success.

"The GLC is generally seen to be under the control of the left. Ken Livingstone's role on the Irish issue, for example, has been absolutely crucial... Have not important gains -however limited-been made for the labour movement by the role of the Left in the GLC, in Sheffield, and in Islington?"

Confronting the Tories? "If we've got the strength to do that, we should do it. But if we haven't the strength... Rate increases... are something imposed on us to the extent that we lack strength". (SO 6.1.83).

The focus on class struggle and on the working class was ditched. Now the GLC would operate within Tory limits, but justify itself by the gestures it could make on Ireland, on gay rights, on women's rights, and so on.

Some valuable things were done in that direction. GLC funding to voluntary groups rose from ÂŁ6 million in 1980 to over ÂŁ50 million in 1984. Campaigns were run on racism, on the police, and encouraging women to sign on as unemployed= and claim benefit.

In substance, however, an attempt at socialist politics was abandoned in favour of radical-liberal politics. And in time - especially after the Tories' second election victory in 1983, with a promise to abolish the GLC-even the radical-liberal politics were played down in favour of simply defending and sustaining the GLC as such.

The Queen was invited to open the Thames Barrier. The GLC freesheet decorated its masthead with a crown and its front page with a huge picture of the monarch. Livingstone assured the press that the royal parasite was a very nice person.

When the IRA exploded a nail bomb in Chelsea in October 1981 Livingstone had condemned the action, but, insisted that the IRA were not just 'criminals' and that the only answer was to get Britain out and reunify Ireland. Two years later, in December 1983, the IRA bombed Harrods. Livingstone seconded a Tory motion of condemnation hoping that the police would catch those responsible, without any attempt at all to insist on the necessary political context.

Partly thanks to the continued media barrage about 'Red Ken' and the 'Marxist GLC', but more decisively because the new Labour Left had now been put into reverse; gear, the GLC and Livingstone got away with all this with their left reputations intact.

The London Labour Party annual conference in March 1982 - after the fiascos on the tube workers’ pay, on school meals, and on fares - was "low-key". Nigel Williamson reported in Socialist Organiser that "large-scale recriminations were not heard..."

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.