It is easily forgotten that the 1980s were nearly not the 1980s at all, politically speaking. At the decade's outset, an aggressively organised, ideologically diverse Left insurgency was the ascendent force in a Labour Party hovering around 50% in opinion polls, as the British public recoiled from the initial, monetarist-brutalist phase of Thatcherism.
The Labour Party in 1980 shared little beyond a name with today’s incarnation. More obviously a workers’ party in both essence and style, it comprised around 350,000 members, not far off twice the membership of 2013. Dues were physically collected on a monthly or weekly basis, providing a simple, regular and direct way for all members to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the Party, to whichever local activists had been tasked with the important, arduous duty of 'sub' collection. Meanwhile, around 12 million people, a hefty percentage of the workforce, were members of trade unions. There seemed every prospect of a Labour government at least as radical as that of 1945, one that would take an axe to the House of Lords as a precursor to challenging the monarchy, re-order the UK’s relationship with the world and, most crucially, fundamentally re-engineer and develop society in favour of the working class.
It was against this wider context that a socialist programme for London emerged during Labour’s initial period of opposition, in advance of the May 1981 Greater London Council (GLC) elections. Making full use of the resources and different committees available in County Hall, the resulting document represents a high-water mark for British post-war left politics; radical and idealistic, yet nuanced and practical. It has at its heart three socialist tendencies: the applied, the ideological and the administrative. As an introduction to the manifesto, which deserves a full read, I’m going to look briefly at each of these aspects, as they are represented.
The programme addresses problems with housing and employment conditions in a way that was detailed yet concise. The different parts of the manifesto were written by, or with, experienced county councillors who were repeatedly dealing with their constituents on issues related to housing stock, joblessness, childcare and alienation. The fact that many councillors were of their constituents, rather than merely representing them, is of crucial importance. These were people who were seeing the conditions of the worst housing stock regularly, not just reading about it in articles by Polly Toynbee.
The language used in the programme is that of everyday needs: the 'leaking roof, damp, overcrowding, lack of security, poorly arranged or inadequate facilities' that characterised an era of soaring homelessness in London. Its plea for the GLC to be given an overall strategic remit for housing in London contrasts strikingly with the shirking of responsibility, sub-contracting and devolution to quangos and pseudo-mutuals that has become the default mode of much local government in recent years. Following a major rebuilding programme, the manifesto promised a dual approach featuring an 'enlarged and invigorated public sector responsive to the needs of its tenants and providing them with real variety and choice' and 'an important owner occupied sector'. The reality of housing in London in 2013, with barely a council house built since 1980, super-charged property prices and the emergence of a new rentier sub-class is perhaps beyond the manifesto authors' worse nightmares of the damage thirty years of market forces might wreak.
The sections on industry and the economy are similarly down-to-earth. At no point is there an argument for a Stalinist system of planning to miraculously revive those London industries that, by the early 1980s, were fading or dead. Instead one finds a hard-nosed, post-Fordist realisation of the effects of technology alongside calls for a shorter working week and a refusal to allow technology to enable social displacement. 'The capital will be especially hard hit by the increasing use of microprocessor technology in offices', the programme warns, going on to advise that 'only a large scale investment programme aimed at key sectors of London’s industry will rescue the capital’s manufacturing economy from almost total annihilation.'
In the London envisaged by the manifesto, the redevelopment of London’s Docklands would not have involved the City of London ingesting high-value properties on both sides of the river; instead, a science park, launched in collaboration with universities, would have kick-started the redevelopment of the Docklands, as part of a highly detailed plan bearing more resemblance to John Bellers' early calls for 'Colleges of Industry' than anything written by Trotsky or Lenin.
Indeed the lack of dirigiste Marxism in the manifesto comes as something of a surprise, given the 1980s London Labour Party's reputation for ultra-leftism. The programme is far from ideologically neutral, however. The manifesto promises to establish a bus manufacturing plant and to identify services or products suitable for new 'municipal enterprises'. These, combined with micro-businesses dedicated to innovation and co-operatives supported by the new London Enterprise Board, would have comprised a large part of London's future economy, whilst strict conditions imposed on suppliers and contractors would have placed pressure upon private sector behaviour. The manifesto envisions a socialisation of capital, through a new Greater London Enterprise Board and new organisations like the London Community Builders. From the perspective of 2013, it is very hard to envisage the possible consequences of this, but the upheaval it would have entailed shouldn't be exaggerated. The Thatcher government was itself to play a massive role in engineering a housing boom using siphoned oil revenue—a restructuring of capital ownership at least as significant as that proposed by the manifesto.
The relationship between the Greater London Enterprise Board and co-operatives was intended to allow demand to be reflected by production, in an economic model largely based on the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. The growth of co-operatives would 'enlarge the control of workers over their work and the responsiveness of firms to consumers' with varying degrees of socialisation of profit, removing large swathes of the economy from dependency upon private finance vehicles. 'Seed-bed' factories, at reduced rent, were to give breathing space to individual initiative in what was to be a very mixed economy built around a strong public sector. There was also scope for 'alternative production', defined as 'technologies which interact with human skills; making goods which are conducive to human health and welfare; working in ways which conserve, rather than waste resources... these initiatives—which constitute a fundamental rejection of the values inherent in capitalist production—must be supported by a Labour GLC.' Ideologically, the manifesto is in every way closer to the English libertarian socialist William Morris than to many of Marx’s famous twentieth century supporters.
Crucially, the manifesto is also fully costed. The authors envisaged large cost savings as a result of restricting the growing usage of contractors and consultants. The numbers are included in the manifesto, along with projected spending plans and revenue. The programme's detailed and methodical character, with each proposal and its ramifications explained clearly and in-depth, is highly unusual, especially in comparison with recent left- and centre-left programmes, which tend to gloss over specifics. The GLC programme was the product of a large amount of collective knowledge and experience in administration, and drew on expertise in economics, geography and the social sciences. Much of this experience came from years serving on borough councils, such as Camden or its radical predecessor, St. Pancras.
If the manifesto has receded into history, the story of what happened next is more widely known. Labour gained control of the GLC. A revolt among Labour councillors quickly installed Ken Livingstone, one of the architects of the manifesto’s Transport policies, as leader. It sent shockwaves through the Labour Party. At a London-wide level, the Party had been dominated by its Right since the days of Herbert Morrison.
The GLC manifesto may have been fully costed, but it nevertheless demanded higher levels of revenue. In the event, the Thatcher government introduced the Rates Act in 1984, which prevented councils from increasing their rates in response to a drop in local government grants. This act, together with the GLC’s eventual abolition in 1986, testifies to the fact that London Labour posed an existential threat to Thatcher’s government, its allies, and its ideology. It offered a version of local socialism that was London to its core, attuned to post-war optimism, democratic instincts and libertarianism. It envisaged an egalitarian, colourful and creative post-industrial city, a vision that successive and ongoing political disasters have not fully killed off. The manifesto is more than a historical snapshot; it is a challenge to us all to offer robust and coherent political alternatives, and successfully relate social realities to communal aspiration.
Carl Rowlands was a director (1996-1998) of the London Industrial Common Ownership Movement, created by the GLC as a federation of co-operative development agencies, in accordance with the London Labour Party’s 1981 manifesto commitment.