The limits of municipal socialism: A review of Radical Lambeth by Simon Hannah

05 September 2022

Dave Stockton reviews Radical Lambeth 1978-1991 by Simon Hannah, Breviary Stuff, 2021, 224pp.

In Radical Lambeth, Simon Hannah recounts the history of one inner London borough during the decade which saw Margaret Thatcher’s governments destroy many of the gains that working class people had made, through Labour governments and councils as well as their trade unions, since 1945.

Lambeth’s Labour council, its local authority trades unions, tenants and squatters’ organisations plus a variety of campaigns among the Black, women’s and LGBTQ+ communities mounted resistance to the Tory government. Collecting their stories, with access to their archives of leaflets, magazines and memoirs, makes this book an interesting read and carries lessons that will educate a new generation of activists.

Lambeth in those years was the largest London borough by population (340,000) and one of the poorest too. John Foster, MP for Norwood in the south of the borough, told parliament that it had a male unemployment rate of 25.4 per cent (Hansard, 23 November 1984). At the same time it had some of the worst slums in the capital, with 25,000 people on the waiting list for council housing. Meanwhile Thatcher was forcing local councils to sell off their housing stock for knock-down prices and restricting the funds necessary for building new homes.

She and her cabinet of hard faced ‘monetarists’ like Keith Joseph, Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbitt had engineered a catastrophic economic slump to curb inflation, undermine the strength of the trade unions and impose huge budget cuts. They were engaged in an ideological crusade to roll back what they called ‘socialism’– as well as cutting down to size the then 13 million strong trade unions, by crippling the right to strike with a series of anti-union laws which remain in force to this day.

They were also selling off nationalised industries, like steel and car manufacturing, with the eventual goal of doing the same to coal mining, the docks and the railways. Rolling back post-war ‘socialism’ meant slashing central government grants for services provided by local councils, including social housing, libraries, welfare for poor families and the huge number of unemployed; in short anything that shielded working class people from the full impact of ‘market forces’.

Lambeth was not a borough with many staple heavy industries, but it had a powerful labour movement with great numbers of workers employed in central London’s businesses and services, both private and public. Its council estates and run-down Victorian terraces, many of which had been bought up by the council in the 1970s, housed large numbers of working class tenants, a large number of whom were young, Black and unemployed. Lambeth’s social services were a lifeline to tens of thousands.

The large membership of a Labour Party and local government unions, led by the left, made Lambeth a flagship of the so-called Bennite and municipal socialist movements of the 1980s. Lambeth council leader Ted Knight was proud to call himself a Marxist and had earned the nickname Red Ted from the Tory tabloids. Indeed, Ted fought on, as a doughty supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, until his death in March 2020. But at the top of Labour after 1983 stood the turncoat Tribunite Neil Kinnock, already persecuting and expelling leftists, who during the miners’ strike condemned picket line violence, as did Norman Willis general secretary of the TUC.

In Lambeth too stood County Hall, seat of the Greater London Council, just across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster. From 1981 onwards this was headed by another tabloid-dubbed ‘Red’, Ken Livingstone, himself born in Lambeth and first elected to the GLC to represent Norwood. The struggle against Thatcher, for a period at least, saw a close collaboration between Livingstone’s GLC and Knight’s Lambeth Council.

At the high point of this struggle, however, Livingstone took the already doomed GLC out of the firing line, alienating his deputy John McDonnell and Ted Knight. Knight was surcharged and debarred from local politics in 1986. But after Thatcher abolished the GLC the same year, Livingstone became a backbench Labour MP. He later served two terms as Mayor of London, the first as an independent when Blair blocked him standing for Labour.

Radical Lambeth deals with the wide range of groups and communities active in the borough including internationally famous Black writers like CLR James (author of Black Jacobins), his nephew the activist and writer Darcus Howe, a key figure in the Race Today Collective as well as poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (author of ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’, about the Brixton Uprising against the Met’s huge, openly racist stop and search operation, Swamp 81). In this period Brixton was regularly the scene of confrontations between the black youth and the police, whom Knight described as ‘acting like an occupying force’.

There was also a widespread squatters movement, especially in Villa Road and Railton Road. These were sites of various ‘communes’: some political, others more cultural. In addition to Lambeth’s role in the great trade union struggles of the decade, Radical Lambeth also recounts the role of housing activists, feminists, lesbians, gays and trans people, too, including their support for the great Miners’ Strike of 1984–85.

Lambeth council and the borough’s public sector trade unions collected large sums for this strike, building links with NUM lodges and mining villages in different coalfields. Lambeth activists were prominent in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Lambeth too, along with Liverpool Council, held out the longest against attack on local government. Radical Lambeth spells out Thatcher’s strategy:

The fundamental reform of local government by breaking the old model apart could be some summarized in three policies. Control of the money, sale of council homes and the privatisation of local services. With strategic thinking they could kill two birds with one stone. So-called reforms to local government gave them a chance to undermine the strength of public sector trade unions as part of a wider battle against trade unionism generally.

Hannah’s account also points out the inherent weakness of a local council faced with such an attack. The enormous powers of central government and the fact that the Labour Party is a ‘broad church’, i.e. a coalition of left and right wing reformists, made this a doubly unequal contest. This is something that the advocates of the so-called Preston Model would do well to consider.

When the Tory ministers cut the central government grants, the first response of the left councils was to raise the rates, the local tax based on the values of houses and commercial property, to cover the deficit. These increases had enabled left councils to dodge head on confrontations for several years, though as socialists pointed out these increases in poor boroughs like Lambeth, meant passing on the costs to the working class.

‘Rate capping’ was the Tories’ response to councils like Lambeth trying to avoid major cuts in services. Westminster would set artificial limits to the amount councils could raise through the rates, imposing penalties on ‘high-spending’, i.e. left Labour councils, by reducing their central government grants. The first big showdown came in 1984, in the midst of the great miners’ strike. In keeping with Keith Joseph’s strategy of isolating the miners, Thatcher authorised her local government minister Patrick Jenkin to offer millions to the rebellious councils. It worked.

Of course, the Labour left covered up this early retreat at the Labour local government conference in July 1984, arguing that by delaying a year, 20-30 councils plus the GLC and ILEA could fight together. As Workers Power pointed out at the time, ‘In fact it postpones the real possibility of massive strike action now in Liverpool, London and other major cities when the state has its hands full with the miners’ strike’.

The crucial moment for all ‘fronts’ of the anti-Thatcher struggle was the summer of 1984, when young militant miners physically confronted hundreds of police at Orgreave near Sheffield, in what was hoped to be a re-run of Saltley Gate in 1972. But in that battle 10,000 Birmingham engineers marched out of their factories and joined the pickets, closing the depot. At Orgreave, Workers Power and other left groups agitated for the same action but the steel workers did not deliver.

That same summer, workers’ leaders Jimmy Knapp (NUR), Ray Buckton (ASLEF), and dockers’ union chief Ron Todd (TGWU) all talked big but, when strikes in these sectors broke out and created pretexts for keeping their members out alongside the miners, they settled for government concessions which took them out of the battle.

At this point, Ted Knight’s staunchest allies, the Militant led Liverpool Council, also did a deal over rate-capping with Tory local government minister Patrick Jenkin, which they hailed as a great victory. In fact what the Tories were doing was buying off struggles that could have come together and even culminated in a class wide strike movement. No wonder the TUC rejected calls for a general strike in support of the miners, despite the huge support from the working class for the NUM.

In fact, for all their Marxist talk both Knight and Livingstone saw the miners’ strike as a ‘second front’ to their rate capping struggle. They only planned to ‘go illegal’ in Spring 1985, when the new rate was due to be set. Did they really expect the miners to carry on striking indefinitely, just to fit their local government finance timetable?

As Hannah correctly points out:

The gruelling battles of the 1980s also demonstrated how hard it was for left wing Labour Party members to affect changes from the council chamber. Heroic stands were made against Thatcherism but all ultimately went down to defeat. To a large degree the defeats came not from the balance of forces in the borough itself but from the national picture. How different would rate capping here have been if the miners had lasted on strike just two more months and the second front had opened up the decisive showdown with the government over rate capping.

However, this ‘if only…’ represents the fatal weakness in Knight and Co’s strategy. For them the Marxist leadership was located in the Council, or rather in a grouping around ‘Red’ Ted. They were very good at mobilising mass pickets of the Town Hall and packing the galleries with angry supporters when crucial votes were to be taken, thus pressurising centre-right Labour councillors to toe the line of refusing to set a rate or ‘go illegal.’

They were not so good, however, when it came to mobilising workers to take strike action when the decisive battle in the rate-capping struggle finally came round in March-July 1985. Hannah certainly acknowledges this as a major failing of the left reformist strategy: ‘As the retreat gathered pace and became a rout, the much hoped for wave of industrial action from the Town Hall unions to back up the remaining councils failed to materialise.’

Yes, NALGO occupied Lambeth Town Hall and locked the District Auditor out of his office, but these were token gestures. The local government reps’ committees, ‘London Bridge’ and its local equivalent ‘Lambeth Bridge’, were too far removed from the workplaces. Few if any workplace reps were involved and rank & file workers confronted with the one-day occupation were simply sent home. At decisive moments of the class struggle, like May 1926 and the summer of 1984, only a revolutionary strategy for uniting these struggles in common action could have avoid a historic defeat which then set the pattern for decades. Unfortunately, this is not brought out in Radical Lambeth. Nevertheless, it is a colourful and informative account to the period as seen from one of the main arenas of struggle and is well worth reading.

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