H M Hyndman 1887

A Commune of London


Source: A Commune of London by H.M. Hyndman, 1887, 16 pages SDF pamphlet;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Author of the Historical Basis of Socialism in England; The Bankruptcy of India; England for All; The Coming Revolution in England, &c.

Though London is the greatest city in the world, and, besides being the metropolis of the United Kingdom and of the British Empire, is the commercial centre and clearinghouse of the whole earth, London at the present moment seems to lag behind the rest of Great Britain. Londoners have less public spirit than the citizens of any other great capital, and are, indeed, rather ashamed than otherwise that they should have been born, or should dwell, among this vast urban population of 5,000,000 souls. Their views are commonly disregarded in all affairs of State, and they are safely trifled with even in matters which most nearly concern them. Talk of London to a man of advanced political opinions from the provinces, and he will wring his hands, lamenting the while the hopeless apathy and indifference of its inhabitants to their own welfare.

This stolid patience is the more strange seeing that the people of other metropolitan cities, far inferior in wealth and population, have never been by any means wanting in municipal pride. Even in Great Britain, the men of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle, and so on, have if anything rather an exaggerated notion of the importance of their respective cities. London alone is deficient in this characteristic of municipal pride which, however narrow and foolish it may seem from some points of view, does afford an outlet for the higher social aspirations, and, in the direct individual concern for the wellbeing of the entire city population, unquestionably provides a sound basis for a wider and better organisation than that of today.

Moreover, the history of London itself is assuredly no record of humility and selfeffacement. That history, on the contrary, is long and glorious; the annals of London are full of instances of vigorous resistance to monarchical and aristocratic encroachments, as well as of equally determined efforts to extend the area of liberties already purchased or conquered. In the Great Civil War of the seventeenth century, as in almost every previous conflict, Londoners held the balance of power, and it was the part taken by London for the Parliament and against the King, which may fairly be said to have decided the issue of the struggle, even before the disciplined fanaticism of Cromwell’s Ironsides finally settled the question. Before and after those glorious days Londoners were famous for their turbulence as well as for their hatred of injustice and oppression. If they withstood the tyranny of the Plantagenet and the Tudors they likewise made head against the oppression of the Stuarts, the hypocritical despotism of Cromwell, and the foreign insolence of the House of Brunswick. The London apprentices and the London mob had minds of their own on most matters. Up to little more than fifty years ago, indeed, London took the lead in nearly all popular movements, whether of reform or revolution; nor was there anything to show that Londoners would fall behind after the Reform Bill of 1832. Probably, the growth of industry in the north of England; the fact that the principal struggles between labour and capital took place in Lancashire and Yorkshire; the increasing proportion of wealthy idlers and their retainers who live in the metropolis; and the dead weight of that antiquated incubus the City Corporation – have all had their influence in keeping back London from that place of national leadership which is properly hers. Great masses of people crowded together in such a nation-city as London must have broad issues and grand ideals held up before them ere they can be really stirred to combined action even for their own personal advantage. Neither Liberalism nor political Radicalism has, therefore, any strong hold upon working Londoners. Genuine democracy, however, which has social improvement directly in view is now an ever-increasing force throughout the metropolis.

At this moment, the administration of Greater London is, with few exceptions, one continuous conjugation of the verb “to job.” I job, thou jobbest, he jobs: we job, you job, they job. Tips, commissions, fraudulent contracts, flagitious leases, official perquisites – all this is looked upon as a matter of course. It is a huge administrative chaos, with the spirit of peculation and rascality brooding over the face of its muddy waters. Yet it would be pessimism of the silliest kind to say that no good work has been done in spite of all mismanagement, or to declare in hopelessness that order can never be introduced into the jumble of anarchy around us. There is something in the very immensity of the city, in its population, power, wealth, learning, capacity, which should fire the most sluggish imagination. The concentration of capital and the machinery of business; the quintessence of experience gained in so many countries; the administrative centre of so many subject peoples; the focus of that worldwide commercialism, itself in its existing form but the growth of yesterday – all this goes to make up London; and never in the history of mankind were such terrible contrasts to be observed, were such complicated problems pressing for solution, as in our own capital today.

For what could not these multitudes, wasting their lives today in the penal servitude of one monotonous round of never-ending and ill-paid toil, competing with one another for the barren privilege of earning a scant subsistence – what could not they achieve if fired with a high ideal, inspired with hope, and filled with a desire to reorganise their inheritance for the benefit of themselves, their children and coming generations? The potentiality of true greatness is unending. It is in the power of London to lead the way in the great Social Revolution which will remove the crushing disabilities, physical, moral and intellectual, under which the great mass of our city populations suffer at the present time; to fill up that breach between town and country which constitutes one of the greatest difficulties of our age; to remedy the constant waste of valuable manures, which is one of the most serious dangers of our existing economical system – to prove to the world, in short, that the centre of capitalism can peacefully enter upon the new and happier period of cooperative industrialism.

On the other hand, think for a moment what likewise might be. Consider a disaster in the Channel which should shut out or greatly reduce our seaborne food supply when home stocks were low; a worse industrial crisis than any yet experienced; a complete dislocation of trade, due to economic or political disturbance in Europe or the East; a revolutionary movement which should interrupt traffic by rail; a rising of despair in London itself – let but one such event as is here imagined really occur and immediately we have the greater part of five millions of people, one sixth of the total population of this island, pinched for food, furious with hunger, and raging in hatred against those whom they would rightly condemn for such absurd want of foresight, such monstrous neglect. What capacities then for destruction and anarchy lie dormant here, what terrific outbursts of popular anger are ever possible, what slaughter might be on one side and on the other!

Those, however, who argue that no thorough alterations could be peacefully made within a calculable period forget the changes, the enormous changes, which have been made in well-to-do London in our own time. I myself, a born Londoner of middle age, can easily recall a London as different from the London of 1887 as the Paris of 1857 was different from the Paris of 1887. The modifications have gone on at an ever-increasing rate of progress. A mere recital of what has been done in the last quarter of a century scarcely gives an idea, even to those who have witnessed it, of the transformation which has been wrought.

Within twenty-five years the completion of New Oxford Street and the Holborn Viaduct has done away with the monstrous inconvenience of the upper route from the West End to the City; the Thames Embankments and Northumberland Avenue have replaced hideous mud flats and afford a handsome and easy approach to the river; Smithfield Market, dingy and noisome, has given place to an array of convenient buildings; the India and Foreign offices and the New Law Courts have all been built; the great Main Drainage Scheme has been carried out; Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges, as well as the great Railway Bridges, have been thrown across the Thames; the public buildings of various kinds at South Kensington have been erected; Battersea, Victoria and Finsbury Parks, as well as some other important open spaces, have been acquired and laid out. Meanwhile, the railway system, thanks to the Metropolitan and District Companies, has been completely revolutionised, and the termini of the Midland, the Great Eastern, the South Eastern, the London and Brighton and the Chatham and Dover Railways have been built. Within the same period a great portion of upper and middle class London has been reconstructed and many districts have developed into populous neighbourhoods from being mere outlying hamlets. Hotels and restaurants have shared in the general change. London used to be in this respect infinitely the worst provided city in Europe. Now, in the matter of good hotels and well-appointed eating places for the well-to-do, the metropolis will bear comparison with almost any capital. Theatres, too, have not been behindhand, and the supply of well-arranged playhouses now rather exceeds the demand. Cabs, omnibuses and tramways have kept pace with the rest; so that facility of communication is far in advance of what it was, and the city of magnificent distances has seen fit to lessen somewhat the time necessary to cover them. Nor can it be denied that street architecture, bad as it still is, is much better than it was. Paving, water, lighting, especially the two latter, are by no means what they ought to be and advertisements of incredible ugliness, to say nothing of obscenity, stare us out of countenance from the walls. But London, as a whole, is, for the easy classes, a clean, well-built, commodious city, in which “individual enterprise” has done something to counteract the shortcomings of municipal effort; and even municipal effort has been used to some advantage where the rich are chiefly interested. Twenty-five years, less than a generation, have sufficed without any complete organisation to transform the London of the wealthy.

When, however, we turn our attention to the poor, and the districts which they inhabit, we find at once that the changes enumerated have not only failed to benefit them, but have positively deteriorated their position in many respects. Those very removals of old pestilential slums and rookeries to make new streets have but served to crowd yet closer together the working population, who have been turned out without receiving a farthing of “compensation for disturbance.” Acres of land have been cleared of poor dwellings, and no additional accommodation having been provided, the streets in the immediate neighbourhood become still more crowded than they were before. The facts are open to all, but nothing is done to remedy the mischief. So far from this, indeed, the officials and vestrymen themselves are, as has been shown in to many cases, directly interested in the maintenance of the most miserable insanitary dens, which they rackrent to the utmost. Public baths, public washhouses, public libraries, public playgrounds are almost as much wanted and are as insufficiently supplied as decent homes for the people. What makes all this the more scandalous and shameful is the fact that the workers positively pay proportionately higher rents for the dog-hutches they inhabit than the rich do for their handsome wellsituated dwellings. Such is the result of unregulated free trade in building.

Thus, while the upper and middle classes have gained enormously in every respect by the last quarter of a century of change in London, the workers in more than one important particular have been losers. Their position has in this respect become not only relatively but positively worse than it was, say, in 1860. What is needed now is the machinery and the motive power to do on a much larger scale for the workers in the next few years what has already been done for the non-producers. A genuine democratic municipality for London can never be built up for the workers by the rent-receiving and profit-making class. The conflict of interest is too direct to admit of this. Now, as ever in history, the new development must come from what superficial thinkers consider the “bad side” of our civilisation.

The defect of all schemes of municipal reconstruction for London, so far, is that they have been put forward from the middle-class standpoint. Mr. James Beal, Mr. J. Bottomley Firth and Sir Charles Dilke have been most active in the endeavour to constitute a municipality for Greater London, and most of the information which is now common property has been collected in consequence of their fearlessness and in great part by their own industry; while the agitation which the Municipal Reform League carried on – though not perhaps very spontaneous – contributed largely to educate the public as to the facts. But they failed, and failed utterly, to carry what they strove for. Sir William Harcourt’s Bill had no genuine popular backing behind it to push it through. There was no firm and continuous “pressure from without” to daunt the enemy and to keep that able but unscrupulous political gladiator up to the mark. Why?[1] Because it was in no real sense a democratic measure. It was framed primarily with a view to securing the predominance of the middle-class ratepayer all over the metropolis. If the workers had benefited by the Bill it would have been an accident. No attempt was made, or proposal set forth, to base the reconstruction on the votes of all adult citizens. This, indeed, was deliberately refused by the leaders of the movement in and out of the House of Commons.

Mr. James Beal himself actually suggested that the land-monopolist-in-chief, the Duke of Westminster, should be appointed as the first Lord Mayor of the new and reformed Municipality! That gives some idea of the general feebleness of the whole scheme and why it had so little unpaid support among the workers. But the time is now ripe for dealing with the whole question of metropolitan government and administration in a bolder spirit and on thoroughgoing democratic lines, in order that those social changes which the times call for may be made at once. Fortunately the recent exposures before Lord Hartington’s Committee and the refusal of both parties to renew the Coal Duties in 1889 have brought the whole question well to the front. London cannot much longer be kept without proper municipal arrangements.

What, however, is the object at which we should aim? Surely at providing such a machinery of government for the metropolis that the people themselves can manage their own business. How can that object be attained? Manifestly only through annual election to all offices by universal suffrage; those offices being well but not excessively paid. Centralised control would be a natural growth out of local management; close watchfulness over parochial business would lead up to an ordered combination for all parts of the city area.

The inhabitants of the metropolis would thus have a double control. FIRST, as voters for their parishes and districts. SECONDLY, as voters for the Great Central Council of the Metropolitan Municipality.

This, however, can only be attained by the maintenance of the ancient and well-defined limits of parishes and districts for local business; and by merging, at the same time, the City Corporation and all other general administrative bodies in one great whole. Here, of course, is where the fiercest opposition always has been, and probably always will be, encountered.

But, when the change is proposed in earnest, the scope of municipal action, though always of course subject to the democratic State, would at the same time have to be very widely extended.

That is the crucial point of the whole business. The principle of corporate management, of communal administration is already admitted fully, not only in many provincial cities but partially even in London itself. There would be no novelty, therefore, in handing over to the Municipal Council of the Metropolis, in conjunction with the Local Councils and Boards, the management of Gas, Water, Roads, Paving, Lighting, Police, Tramways, Omnibus, Parks, Sanitation, River Police and Administration, Drainage, Markets, Poor Relief and (within limits) Education. Nor should it be forgotten that, even as it is, great powers are given in relation to building homes for the poor which are very rarely exercised. It would be but a slight extension of the same principle to vest in the same bodies the power to organise unemployed labour on a large scale, either on the land or on public works; to carry on certain productive business without the intervention of contractors as has already been recommended by the Local Government Board; to give them the direction or the right to acquire the land and the railways within municipal limits; or even, as is now being proposed in Paris, that they should take over and manage cooperatively, for the benefit of the whole community, distributive agencies which deal in the necessaries of life.

Of course, it is easy to cry out that this would lead direct to Socialism. Even assuming this to be harmful – which to us Social-Democrats seems absurd – the question is whether all roads will not lead in that direction, whether, indeed, as the Times strangely enough pointed out in a friendly spirit in its “Jubilee Retrospect,” all our municipal changes are not now tending towards this greater change. It is better even for the wealthy to recognise facts than to drift. That such a reorganisation would place it in the power of the representatives of the whole metropolitan population to reduce the hours of labour of all their employees to eight a day while paying a fair rate of wages; to build comfortable homes which should be rented at the cost of construction and maintenance alone; to provide free education and to feed the children in the Board Schools; to supply bread, meat and vegetables and other necessaries at cost in the public markets of good quality; to organise unemployed labour usefully instead of dooming men and women to idleness or to criminal tasks – that such wide powers as these should be granted to the direct representatives or delegates of the whole population of London may be objected to by those who imagine that the ideas of the middle class are to dominate for ever; but can scarcely be regarded as ruinous by men who wish to give a full and peaceful outlet to the development of democratic ideas.

But it may be urged, if it is unsafe to leave the present authority in the hands of Boards and Vestries; if the enormous revenues now raised for the various local and other purposes are, to a great extent, misapplied, frittered away, or actually wasted; if the conjugation of the verb, “to job,” be, as you say, the main employment of officials, surely it would be dangerous to give such much larger powers into the hands of the new officials.

The objection is reasonable; but the cases are quite different. At the present time there is no direct control by those most interested, and there is no direct responsibility on the part of those appointed. The wonder is that, this being so, matters are not yet worse than they are. Payment for all services rendered, combined with annual election and the fullest publicity, would enable a supervision to be exercised over every department which is wholly lacking now. London, as all admit, could easily supply skilled administrators of the highest class in every direction; but the experience of the School Board shows that an annual election is necessary to prevent the formation of cliques and intrigues. Certainly, nothing short of a programme which will appeal directly to the mass of the people can give sufficient impetus to overthrow the reactionary forces mustered on the other side.

London was exempted from the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, probably on account of the immensity of the task of reorganisation, as well as of the disinclination to interfere with the historical privileges of the ancient and wealthy Corporation. This City Corporation has, since then, defeated every attempt at even moderate reform which any way touched its members; and it is not a little remarkable that the Tory party, which is never weary of boasting about the ingrain Conservatism of London, dare not entrust the people of the metropolis with full control over their own affairs, and shrinks back terrified from a reorganisation of London on a popular basis. If London, unlike every other great capital in the world, is really reactionary at bottom, the fuller the confidence reposed in the people the more complete would be the Tory triumph, and the more striking the contrast it would present to such turbulent centres as Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Brussels. In any case, the Corporation, as all must admit, is reactionary enough; but, having survived Sir William Harcourt’s proposals, as it has outlived every other attack, direct or indirect, it is still the only real Municipal Government of London. Its historical position, vast wealth and the impossibility of reorganisation without some such centre as a nucleus, render it absolutely essential to deal first with the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council of the City of London. It is most fortunate, therefore, that the recent exposures have proved to all the world the need which exists for thorough investigation and reconstruction. The huge sums spent on entertainment and display, the thousands squandered on spurious counter-agitations, the large grants obtained in one way or another by the hangers-on of the Corporation, have produced a deep impression on the public mind, when contrasted with the dense mass of miserably poor folk, who never derive any benefit whatever from the vast revenues of the City.

The Corporation of the City of London has a revenue of no less than 500,000 a year, in round figures. The resident population of the City proper, however, in whose name this large sum is received and administered, is comparatively small. At night but 50,000 persons, mostly caretakers, and four-fifths women and children, are to be found there. “It is, therefore,” as Mr. Firth has well said, “a huge aggregation of offices and warehouses, to which people come in the morning and which they leave at night. Only a very small proportion of these persons ever interfere with municipal matters in the City. These are controlled by a small body of men, most of whom come from outer London, and some of whom have only a brass-plate qualification in the City. The Corporation is, therefore, a non-resident body.” Yet to this non-resident handful of mere carpetbaggers, who come into the City to make money for a few hours, the chief authority of the metropolis, with the disposal of Coal and Wine Dues, the monopoly of markets, a wide judicial and magisterial control, the management of their own police and the manipulation of the Liveries, is entrusted. Never before, assuredly, was such a power over great revenues and important administrative work allowed to remain in the hands of a non-representative clique like the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Common Councilmen of the City of London.

Formerly these officials lived chiefly within the City limits, and were elected by their fellow-citizens, who knew all about them. Though they then possessed great wealth and arrogated to themselves powers which were insufficiently used for the good of the whole of London, it is not a little remarkable that so long as they were actually elected, and were subject to any popular control whatever, the majority of the members of the Corporation were almost invariably found on the side of the people – notably in the case of the famous John Wilkes, who was himself an Alderman. Now, however, that the election is a complete farce, so close a ring is it confined to; now that the 206 Common Councillors and 26 Aldermen, who from the City Government have uncontrolled mastery over other people’s money, they are almost universally to be found on the side of reaction. In every matter which directly affects the well-being of the people in present conditions, such as that of public markets, the Corporation sticks close to its flagitious monopoly and refuse to concede an inch to the necessities of the community. In this very case of the markets public money was spent as freely to mislead public opinion as in the more notorious instance of the Coal Dues lately given to the world. The City Corporation remains, in short, in the heart of London a separate and unmanageable body, corrupt, selfish, wasteful and unscrupulous in all that relates to greater London, and maintaining its position by feasts of gluttony and flowing bowls, assisted by hypocritical Mansion House Funds, which serve to delude those who wish to be deceived.

A Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Common Councilmen directly elected by the adults of all London by yearly vote, would have all the prestige of the ancient Corporation, but would adapt themselves at once to the new period. Such a body, whatever might be its drawbacks, must at any rate be far more fit to deal with London administration for the benefit of London than a small non-resident minority, who claim the right to deal in perpetuity as they think proper with revenues, monopolies, buildings and endowments which they really ought to hold in trust for the people. The conflict of jurisdiction which now arises, and other monstrous absurdities which will occur to any reader, would at once be done away with. Such a change would be in itself little short of a peaceful revolution.

Hereafter it will probably be held to be the most crushing condemnation of our ruling classes that they knew well what was going on around them, analysed the phenomena, carefully tabulated the facts, mourned over the results – yet did nothing. The Blue Books of the reign of Queen Victoria form an overwhelming indictment against the governing classes of the United Kingdom during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The most serious and shameful charges against the present system and its defenders can always be found in the carefully-compiled evidence of deliberate mismanagement and culpable maladministration recorded in the official Reports and Evidence issued under the authority; of Parliament. Precisely so in this case. There lies the elaborate Report of a Royal Commission to justify the most vigorous interference with those City companies and Liveries which, democratic and beneficial enough in the early days of their existence, have degenerated in these later times into mere props of all that is extravagant and corrupt in City administration. This Royal Commission was appointed in 1880 to inquire into all the affairs of the City Companies, and to report thereon. Royal Commissions are not very active bodies, and this one did not report till 1884; but it certainly did the thing exhaustively in the end, and the Report contains in its complete form, much valuable historical, legal and statistical information.

The members of this Commission, moreover, could not be accused of any revolutionary tendency. They were the Earl of Derby, the Duke of Bedford, Lord Sherbrooke, Lord Coleridge, Sir Sydney Waterlow, Mr. Albert Pell, Mr. Walter H. James, Mr. Joseph F. B. Firth and Mr. Thomas Burt. But one of these, Mr. Firth, could be called even a vigorous reformer. Yet this highly conservative peer-ridden Commission came to conclusions which are quite inconsistent with the maintenance of the City Companies in their present form. They reported in so many words that the “sums spent by many of the companies on entertainments, maintenance and the relief of poor members are excessive; and they are distinctly of opinion that the funds, now so flagrantly wasted, should be largely devoted to the encouragement of education and science, to the foundation and maintenance of hospitals, museums, public libraries, public baths, &c., and to the improvement of workmen’s dwellings"!

Now the revenues of these Companies are not less than 750,000 a year, due to the endowments of a long-passed period. And, although, since the publication of the Report quoted, a very little has been done to carry out the recommendations therein contained, the poor inhabitants of greater London are still deprived of the endowments intended for their benefit; the vast revenues being still applied for the most part to the purposes so vigorously denounced by the Royal Commissioners. Here, therefore, as all must recognise, in the Corporation and the City Companies, is the desired nucleus for the reorganisation of the Municipal Government of London upon a scale worthy of the past history and future development of the metropolis. Until a blow is struck at this, the headquarters of reaction, London will ever lie like a dead weight on the whole of progressive England.

The next most important bodies are the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London School Board. Neither of these powerful Boards is elected on genuine democratic principles. The former, indeed, is nothing but a Council of nominees from the Vestries, who, to the number of 45, practically sit for life; and, if we are to credit recent statements, some at least of them are recompensed directly or indirectly for their gratuitous attendances by useful information beforehand, which is manipulated after the fashion of the New York Tammany king; though, as in that case, it is very hard to bring the nefarious transactions directly home to their perpetrators.

The Metropolitan Board of Works was constituted in 1855, and its first duties were in connection with the great main system of drainage; but its powers have since been extended to the freeing of the bridges across the Thames, the making of the embankments and street improvements, the maintenance and control of parks, commons and open spaces, the fire brigade, the raising money for artisans’ dwellings and various minor matters, Unfortunately, the central and local management has been left in a perfectly chaotic condition in many particulars, especially in regard to drainage, paving and the management of repairs to gas and water pipes. If the Board of Works were composed of the best and most honest administrators in the world its members would be almost powerless to enforce their views of the general interest against the petty local cliques and the great monopolist corporations which have their own ends to serve and aim at nothing else. As it is, scarcely an effort is made to harmonise the conflicting jurisdictions; and the provoking absurdities which result from the absence of any general control are constantly forced upon the public, in the shape of roads pulled up and rendered impassable just as they have been laid down afresh; drains utterly defective and unwholesome, because the minor household arrangements do not correspond with the elaborate perfection of the main arteries; insanitary streets and courts allowed to remain because local views conflict with the proper administration of the law.

The wonder again is that the drawbacks and hindrances to progress being so great, London of the well-to-do has been improved so much as it has. That this should have been possible, in spite of everything, only shows what might be effected for the workers with improved organisation. For, of course, it is in matters which concern the mass of the people that the Metropolitan Board of Works, like the City Corporation, manifests most clearly its deliberate incompetence. The Board of Works is the chief authority outside of the City area, in the matter of artizans’ dwellings, for instance. In the City, as well as outside the City, whole tracts of London have been cleared of the working population without any provision whatever being made for their rehousing. This monstrous action on the part of the irresponsible Corporation, and equally irresponsible landowners, has thrown still greater responsibility upon the Board of Works, as the only body, besides the Corporation, with any power whatever to take up sites, or to borrow money for buildings.

Unfortunately, no advantage, or practically none, has been taken of the powers already given, and the Board has quite lately refused to take over the sites of the abandoned prisons and to use them for the erection of wholesome dwellings. In fact, only 20,000 poor persons have been housed by the action of the Board during the whole of its thirty-two years existence; so that this portion of its functions under Act of Parliament has been virtually neglected altogether. Yet, here once more the Report of a Royal Commission, now an inch deep in dust, of which the Prince of Wales and the present Prime Minister were both members, shows conclusively how imperatively necessary it is that something should be done at once in this direction, and implicitly condemns the culpable inaction of the Board and the Corporation.

The most cursory examination of the balance-sheet of the Metropolitan Board of Works shows, also, how desirable it is that such enormous funds as its members dispose of should be under direct popular control. Thus, at the end of the year 1885, the Board had a debt of no less than 17,000,000, involving, in all, according to the accounts, a yearly payment of 840,000. The revenue from rates, and coal and wine dues, alone amounted to 1,160,000 in round figures, while rents and sales of ground rents gave another 400,000. No less than 1,692,000 were raised in loans in that one year. These are large sums, indeed, to leave to be handled by nominees of the Vestries and the Corporation. Besides, the piecemeal system of dealing with metropolitan finance is itself hideously wasteful. A thoroughly well-digested Budget for all London would” sweep away all sorts of curious anomalies, and would render inevitable reforms and retrenchments which would go far towards supplying the means for the necessary additional expenditure.

The London School Board is a far more representative body than the Metropolitan Board of Works, seeing that its members are elected by a fairly wide suffrage, and that they only sit for three years. But in this case, too, great waste has been proved against the Board. While the exaction of fees – which form in gross but a twelfth of the income derived by the Board from the rates and the grants from the Committee of Council, and less than a sixteenth of that income, if the 30,000 a year which their enforcement costs is deducted – is direct evidence that false economy still finds a majority of champions on this essentially middle-class Board. Free education, which a democratically elected and paid Board would immediately clamour for, would be really cheaper in many ways than the continuance of the present system. Nor would the supply of free meals for the children be opposed, when once it was recognised that physical health must precede mental education unless we wish to breed cretins in our modern Babylon. These ideas of free education and free meals have made great strides even among ratepayers of late years; as the doctrines of the old competitive, inhuman, devil-take-the-hindmost political economy of the landowning and profit-making classes have given place to a wider and more scientific, as well as more humane, view of human society. What is needed now is not so much the public opinion to carry these measures as the requisite machinery through which the awakened public opinion can work. That in passing.

The total ordinary revenue of the London School Board is nearly 1,500,000 a year and the total outstanding debt is 3,263,000. To go into the details of waste and overpayment would take me too far. But no man who has grasped the subject would wish to reduce the pay or increase the hours of work of the teachers; his tendency would certainly be in the opposite direction. What is needed is increased efficiency and increased expenditure; but no one would be ready to suggest that this should be left to the present unpaid Board, torn as it is by polemical and other disputations. It may indeed be fairly agreed that the present Board is too much centralised, and that its whole business would be far better done as a Committee of the Central Municipal Council with local educational Councils. A wider and truer view of what was necessary could thus be gained, and power obtained to handle the old endowments to advantage.

But if this is true of the City Corporation and Companies, of the Metropolitan Board of Works and of the School Board, still more is it true of the various bodies entrusted with the management of poor relief throughout the metropolis. This, owing to the hopeless confusion of authority at present existing and much of what I have said and am saying applies to other large cities as well as to London – is nothing short of shameful. Those who apply for the organisation of unemployed labour, or for the extension of relief to families in temporary distress, to tide them over a few bad weeks without breaking up their homes, or for any purpose of that kind, are pushed on from pillar to post, referred backwards and forwards from Pilate to Caiaphas and Caiaphas to Pilate, in truly outrageous fashion. The Local Government Board, the State Department, declares that it cannot act unless the Vestries apply for direct permission; the Vestries aver that they have no power unless ordered by the Local Government Board; the Guardians of the Poor cry out that they are in the like position. So the weariful tale of helplessness and incapacity is told round the whole circle of selfishness and imbecility, while the deserving poor are crushed into starvation and misery outside.

Each parish has its own method of dealing with its poor; no attempt has ever yet been made, as suggested by the Social-Democratic Federation last winter, to keep a labour register of men in want of work in each parish; and the whole problem is regarded not from the point of view of what is best for the people, what will maintain them and their families in the best condition physical and mental, but from the point of view of what will save the ratepayers most money and give capitalists the largest profit. There is no central municipal authority which can maintain control, check waste, or manage business with uniformity and certainty. All the bodies dealing with the poor are elected by a close middle-class suffrage, in which the workers have in practice little share. Nowhere is the absolute necessity for improved democratic administration more clearly manifested than here. This is, indeed, universally admitted. Even the present incapable Government has a measure in hand for dealing in some way with this Augean stable of metropolitan maladministration; but report attributes to it that same miserable parochialism which has, so far, rendered all real municipal life or organised control for London impossible.

Then there are the police. Londoners alone, of all English citizens, have no control over the police, whom they themselves pay out of the local rates. The mischievous effects of the control of the Home Office, and the mistaken views of the practically irresponsible metropolitan police magistrates, have been exhibited lately in a very striking manner. The militarisation of the police is specially objectionable. The constables form a civilian force and should be under civilian control. Good pay, good pensions, short hours and rewards for good behaviour would soon put a new spirit into the force. They come from the people and should be controlled by the people. Then the City police and the London police would form one fine body of self-respecting men, who would feel that they were performing useful duties in maintaining general order for their fellow-citizens in whichever direction we look, in a word, we find that no step in advance can be taken until municipal centralisation and decentralisation are considered and dealt with concurrently – the former being for the moment the most important.

To sum up. London administration is at present in a chaotic condition, because no Government and no Minister has ever had enough power to deal with the City Corporation. That power can only be obtained by a direct appeal to the mass of working Londoners, who have learnt of late years, by a bitter experience, how their affairs are neglected. In order to appeal with effect a distinct democratic programme, based upon adult suffrage for all municipal offices, must be submitted to them, giving, at the same time, to the elected representatives or delegates of the people full powers to deal with the different departments of municipal business and to take up social questions in earnest.

The reorganisation would take the form of a Great Central Council, with a Lord Mayor – to retain old names – as its President. This council, numbering, say 100 or 150 members, or one member for every 40,000 or 50,000 inhabitants, would appoint committees to deal with Public Works, Poor Relief, Education, Police, Sanitation, Railways, Tramways, Omnibus, Gas, Water and so on. Elected annually by universal suffrage, the members would have to give yearly a public account of their stewardship; but experience has shown that capable men and women would be almost permanently in place. Under this Central Council would be similar local councils, locally elected for local business, which could be better handled, under general supervision, in St. Pancras, Southwark, Hackney and other districts on general lines. The powers of dealing with land, &., and of applying the surplus of rich districts to improvements elsewhere, would give the Central Council great control over local vagaries.

The opportunity is a great one. Public feeling is aroused on the question. Until London is moved the whole municipal business of the country is practically checked, and the development of the people is headed back. Even the functions of the State are crippled, and its position, as by far the greatest and most responsible employer of labour in the kingdom, is scarcely recognised, owing to the mass reactionary rubbish which London society and London newspapers tumble out upon the community. The sooner a change is made the better. The people are much more advanced than their nominal leaders. For myself I am quite convinced that a proposal to provide London with a thoroughly democratic Municipality would arouse thousands to active work who have become quite hopeless of deriving any advantage from the petty political and parochial issues which are now debated; while a clean sweep would then be made of the reactionists who trade on the apathy of the voters. Such a proposal would at once hold up a higher ideal of citizenship for the whole population, and would, at the same time, give them a direct interest in the affairs of our great city.

To imagine that London, with its vast population, can be safely dealt with on the lines of Little Pedlington is absurd. Full account must be taken of the great historical position of our city and of the functions which it fulfils in the general arrangements of the British empire and of the civilised world. To state the problem fairly is to go more than half way towards solving it. We may then hope to see a London in which the whole of the people are thoroughly well and wholesomely housed in commodious artistic dwellings, instead of in noisome dens or dingy, monotonous barracks; in which free education and free meals – for which preparations are already being made – will be given in all Board schools, leading on naturally to technical and higher education for all classes; in which parks and playgrounds and squares, together with good public baths, washhouses and libraries, will be adequately supplied for the whole people; in which the foul smoke that now threatens to poison us outright is kept under by rigid enactments in favour of better methods of coal combustion; in which the tramways, omnibus lines, railways, gas, water and other monopolies, being under the direct management of the municipality, overwork may be at once restricted and order taken even with the sweaters’ dens; in which the labour of the unemployed will be organised, cooperatively on arms or on useful public works, the workhouses becoming merely a remembrance of former misrule; in which, also, due regard being paid to artistic appearance, we shall no longer be at the mercy of jerry builders for our modern orders of architecture or of advertisement contractors for our decorations – such a London, I say, with many other improvements, we may hope to see far within the next quarter of a century. The means for the transformation are ready, they need but to be used in the interest of the overwhelming majority of the population.

But this will entail endless expense? The metropolis will be bankrupt? Not at all. The revenues even now raised, the endowments even now being squandered, would more than suffice to carry out the whole of the changes. Nothing but prejudice and class interest – powerful obstructions, I admit, so long as apathy prevails – bar the way; and these will be swept aside the moment Londoners grasp the situation, and, feeling that they have leaders on whom they can rely, begin to act in earnest. London, with its enormous concentration of wealth, population, and active commerce, must lead England safely along the path to the new period, in the same way that England herself, owing to economical and historical circumstances and geographical position, must lead the development from the anarchical and ruinous competition of today to the ordered and beneficial cooperation of the near future. As the sense of their responsibility and power grows among the workers, as citizens of all classes learn to comprehend that the physical wellbeing and thorough mental education of every man, woman and child directly concerns each one of them and the whole community, as under a better system the fearful misery and the physical, mental and moral degradation of the present time fade away like a nightmare, a new conception of the duty and capacity of London as a whole will spread, and a real metropolis of Great Britain will afford a splendid career of usefulness to every inhabitant of this nation-city.


1. I was deputed by the Social-Democratic Federation at the time when Sir William Harcourt’s Bill was before the House of Commons to see Mr. James Beal and to press upon him the necessity for adopting the adult suffrage or at least the manhood suffrage cry. He refused to budge an inch. I thereupon predicted failure, and failure there was.


THE SOCIAL-DEMOCRATIC FEDERATION.

OBJECT.

The Establishment of a Free Condition of Society based on the principle of Political Equality, with Equal Social Rights for all and the complete Emancipation of Labour.

PROGRAMME.

1. All Officers or Administrators to be elected by Equal Direct Adult Suffrage, and to be paid by the Community.

2. Legislation by the People, in such wise that no project of Law shall become legally binding till accepted by the Majority of the People.

3. The Abolition of a Standing Army, and the Establishment of a National Citizen Force; the People to decide on Peace or War.

4. All Education, higher no less than elementary, to be Free, Compulsory, Secular and Industrial for all alike.

5. The Administration of Justice to be Free and Gratuitous for all members of Society.

6. The Land with all the Mines, Railways and other Means of Transit, to be declared and treated as Collective or Common Property.

7. Ireland and all other parts of the Empire to have Legislative Independence.

8. The Production of Wealth to be regulated by Society in the Common interest of all its members.

9. The Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange to be declared and treated as Collective or Common Property.

* * *

As measures called for to palliate the evils of our existing society the Social-Democratic Federation urges for immediate adoption.

The Compulsory Construction of healthy artizans’ and agricultural labourers’ dwellings in proportion to the population, such dwellings to be let at rents to cover the cost of construction and maintenance alone.

Free Compulsory Education for all classes, together with the provision of at least one wholesome meal a day in each school.

Eight Hours or less to be the normal working day in all trades.

Cumulative Taxation upon all incomes above a fixed minimum not exceeding 300 a year.

State Appropriation of Railways.

The establishment of National Banks which shall absorb all private institutions that derive a profit from operations in money or credit.

Rapid Extinction of the National Debt.

Nationalisation of the Land, and organisation of agricultural and industrial armies under State control on Cooperative principles.

* * *

As means for the peaceable attainment of these objects the Social-Democratic Federation advocates:

Adult Suffrage. Annual Parliaments. Proportional Representation. Payment of members; and Official Expenses of Election out of the Rates. Abolition of the House of Lords and all Hereditary Authorities. Disestablishment and Disendowment of all State Churches.

SECRETARY, SOCIAL-DEMOCRATIC FEDERATION, 181, Queen Victoria St., E.C.

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