Pete Goodwin & Chris Harman

[Interview with Ken Livingstone]

Leading London leftwards?

(June 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 6, 14 June–12 July 1981: 6, pp. 10–11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Labour’s victories at the local elections have been seen by the press as a precursor of what could happen nationally as the tide of Bennism rises within the Labour Party. Nowhere has this been more so than in London, where, the day after the defeat of the Tories, the Labour group on the GLC threw out its own old right wing leadership. Many on the left are saying this proves the value of working inside the Labour Party. We disagree. But the arguments raised by the left’s victory are important, and so we sent Pete Goodwin and Chris Harman to find out from the new leader of the GLC, Ken Livingstone, what the left expect to achieve. We hope our readers will let us know their views for the next issue?

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We’ve had the experience in Camden, and in Lambeth of left councillors coming to power with the best intentions and soon finding themselves so circumscribed by the government’s financial regulations, that they end up not only having to implement the cuts, but forcing up rents and rates as well. Do you think you can avoid this at all in the GLC?

We try to avoid people rushing away with the idea that this is a revolutionary council that’s going to bring down the government or transform life in London.

We’ve set out sights very much lower. We haven’t been able to avoid the rhetoric of the Tory press, convincing everyone that it’s revolutionary. But certainly in dealing with the left press we’ve tried to make it clear what the position is. Of the fifty Labour members, twenty to twenty four could be described as left, and the remainder break down pretty well equally, about ten people on the ideological right and the rest in the centre of the party.

What we have got here is a broad majority within the Labour group around a commitment to implement the manifesto. The manifesto is not revolutionary. If it’s carried out it will be a major breakthrough, because in simple reformist terms it will be a bold step forward. It is a step that a capitalist society could live with – wouldn’t like, but could live with. Most of the things in that manifesto have been done somewhere else, usually under governments which are in no sense socialist.

But it’s taking the whole package together, plus the fact that the media and the Tories detect that we have a Labour group with a determination to carry it out (which is quite unusual in Labour Party terms) which has given the GLC election result the significance the media have attached to it.

But we are trying to avoid the sort of over-enthusiasm that there was in Lambeth. Bear in mind that Lambeth took place at the time of a Labour government. They didn’t work a strategy for what they should do in the advent of a Tory government until after it happened. They’ve spent two years defending the present level of service, so that no-one’s seen anything improving – things have been getting progressively worse, and the rates have massively gone up.

We’re committed to obvious, noticeable improvements in service, so perhaps we’re in a slightly easier position in defending a rate increase. But also what’s happened during the campaign is that for the first time Labour Party activists have been out on the doorsteps in a big way discussing the question of rates and services with the public. And that campaign has clearly changed the perception of the Labour Party about the issue of rates.

I myself feel that perhaps the only reason why the Lambeth results were so bad is the supplementary rate – Lambeth Council were forced into making a supplementary rate in a rushed fashion, unplanned, without any way of discussing it with people beforehand or involving the movement.

Clearly in Lambeth that caused a lot of people to be confused about where the blame for the present conditions lies: whether it was wholly with the government, or the council, or whatever. In an area like mine in Paddington, where there was the same red scare and rates scare, simply because everyone has lived under Tory councils for as long as they can remember, there was no diffusion of the responsibility for the crisis. People voted overwhelmingly Labour, in the face of the most incredible publicity from the Tories, because there you haven’t had a Labour council trying to protect them from the effects of government policy. So the issue was sharp and clear.

Now the lessons I take from that are that we’ve got to get it across that rate increases are very much a last resort measure – they have to be used simply to defend the programme. Instead of approaching the thing in a defensive way we have to argue the offensive against the government, to demand the restoration of the money that’s been cut from the government, to put on the spot the individual Tory MPs for London who voted to cut rate support grant for London and to bring home to people that all the rate increases they’ve had in London this year are solely the response the government policy.

Take away inflation and debt charges and the switch of resources from London and no-one would have had a rate increase. All the three factors that have increased the rates are centrally determined by government.

Don’t you still think that the danger is that you’ll get through a few improvements, which will certainly be very popular. Then after a couple of years it will be like it is in most long established Labour boroughs in London – fantastic cynicism among ordinary working class people about the Labour council, the councillors being remote from them, and the rate increases hitting them just as hard as rent increases used to?

To succeed in carrying Londoners with us we’ve got to produce the services. Now, the key one is going to be public transport. If we can avoid U-turns or defeats on that and stick to our policy of introducing the initial fare cuts and simplifying the system – improving the number of buses on the roads – people will perceive that as an improved public transport service, and, I think, will defend it in the way they have in South Yorkshire.

In South Yorkshire you get on the bus and say to people: do you thing it’s right that you should be paying these higher rates in order to keep fares down; they’re over the moon, delighted to be doing so. Part of the problem in Lambeth was that having led the fight, when it was forced to back down Lambeth did go for cuts. I think that was a mistake. It would have been better to go for an even larger rate increase and avoid any of the cuts.

So you wouldn’t envisage any circumstances in which it would be correct to go for maintaining services but having no rate increases?

You mean the bankruptcy option, as Ted calls it.


Clearly there would be a circumstance – if you are in the sort of situation where the life of the government is threatened and that by taking that option you can provide another factor into bringing down the government. But short of that, no, because you’re in a position where the government has all the cards in its hands. That bankruptcy option is credible when you’re got trade union and mass support, but when the government isn’t threatened with defeat, to take that option merely opens the way for the government to set you aside.

Heseltine will be making some move against overspending councils again soon – the possibility is they’ll introduce a limit on rate increases in the industrial sector, or a limit on rate increases generally. Clearly the government’s not happy to see the rates option used. They have no doubt in their mind which option most benefits their class. We should not have any doubt in our mind that the rate increase option does benefit our class, certainly in London, rather than cutting services.

We called meetings in Kilburn ward (which I represented on Camden council) in the run-up to this year’s rate debate and said to them: Look, the options before us are either redundancies in the building department and cuts, or a massive rate increase.

We had unanimous support – nobody was in favour of cuts and redundancies as the alternative. I think working class people have a much greater degree of sophistication about what a Labour council and the Labour Party can achieve in a capitalist society than most of the left groupings give them credit for.

You do tend to get a lot of populist reaction because people perceive a lot of waste within the council bureaucracy. That’s why we’ve set out here in all our pronouncements to make it quite clear we do not see an increase in central bureaucracy as one of our objectives. We believe we have to be clearly identified with cutting out all the opulence and chauffeur-driven cars and municipal bean-feasts, seeing trips abroad as synonymous with councillors.

Over a period of time, if a Labour GLC is identified with the industrial struggles that take place in London, the defeats that we will suffer should not break the link between the working class and the Labour Party, shouldn’t lead to cynicism, ordinary Labour voters do not expect that electing a Labour GLC is going to produce some sort of heaven on earth in London. They just expect us to fight as hard as we can to defend their interests as best we can.

We’ve gone through sixty years of the most appalling leadership locally and nationally in the Labour Party. Now that is beginning to change. We had, in parliamentary terms, this drift of people who went from comfortable upper middle-class homes through university into the PLP and had no connection with the working class whatsoever. On local councils all these old municipal deadheads – because the left never considered councils with interest – got on there and built up their little empires, enjoyed the comforts of being on the council, loved the status – these are the people we’re now shaking out. But I don’t believe that they were all little Ken Livingstones and Ted Knights when they were in their early twenties and that somehow they’ve been lost.

I think there are different people coming into the party now, people who have had a majority on the regional executive.

So what would you say to the claim, I think it was in the Times, that of the new people elected to the Labour GLC, there are only three people who immediately prior to the elections had been manual workers? That fits in with our impression that the bulk of the people are lower professionals, especially people professionally involved in local government work, social workers, community workers, and so on.

It depends how you define class. Many of the elements that you would consider most important to have removed from the party are those that have the skilled manual background, peop|e that have been providing the 40% of the Parliamentary Labour party, which is lobby fodder for the leadership, who’ve arrived in parliament as their reward for years of hard work in the local factory, or whatever, They are not necessarily, just because of their factory background, likely to be radical.

The incoming group is, I think, fundamentally working class. Now, it may be that a lot of them are in non-manual work or professions, but then there aren’t many manual worker professions left in London. The skilled working class have long since gone. What you’ve got in London is a population that works in service industries and public administration, which is where the shift to the left in trade unionism has come over the last ten years. These are very much post-1968 in terms of the formative key forms of political experiences and I perceive those people as working class. The fact that a lot of them have gone to university does not disqualify them.

You talked about the Labour group on the council supporting industrial struggles, and winning further support through that. How would you envisage that?

Well, that’s really something that comes from the book Red Bologna, which most of the incoming members seem to have read and taken a lot of lessons from. In Bologna, in any industrial struggle, the local council puts the facilities of the council at the use of the strikers and is down there on picket lines with them and so on. If there is an industrial dispute in London and there are GLC facilities that can be used for the benefit of strikers they’ll be made available. Mike Ward is setting up a trade union resource centre which will provide support and extra background research facilities for London trade unions and particularly concentrate on those areas where trade unions are weakest – in service industries, tourism and so on.

I’ve been struck by some of the letters I’ve had in from ordinary party members, who are just delighted to see the left has won something at last – not people who’ve been terribly active – people who’ve stopped me in the street and congratulated me, and so on. It has got through to a proportion of the population that there’s been a breakthrough here, and this has been very well received.

We will fight on a whole range of issues right the way through, but we are not going to throw ourselves like kamikaze pilots, as Ted Knight’s fond of saying, into situations which are hopeless or for which there isn’t popular support. We’ll try and choose the ground in a way that actually benefits us rather than the government.

Now, our scope in all this is limited; the government is in a position to be able to choose most of the ground on which it will move against us. But we will be fighting. We’re currently convening meetings in every borough to discuss how we should implement the fares cuts. We’re producing our own GLC free giveaway newspaper, which will go to every household in London explaining the stand we’re making.

We’ll also use that newspaper to campaign round issues which go beyond just the scale of what this building is responsible for. The ethnic minorities committee we’ve set up will use the newspaper to explain our opposition to the Nationality Bill, to urge people to write and complain to their MPs about it.

The real disagreement between us is that you end up having a choice between being the people who actually do the dirty work for the government, perhaps a bit nicer than a Tory council would, or you end up in a Clay Cross or a Poplar situation, and the attempts to skate between the two, which is what Ted Knight’s been trying to do, are not very successful.

My record is that I don’t mind, as in the 35 hour week/£60 minimum wage row at Camden, taking a risk and trying to break through that system and its constraints. But you want some guarantee, some chance of success. Now, I don’t perceive, as you clearly do, that rates are just doing the dirty work of the government. The London Chamber of Commerce goes screaming bananas at the thought of it – which is why they’re in and out of Heseltine’s office demanding that he stops us using the rates option. Anything that takes £2.7 million out of the city of London every time we put a penny on the rates is not perceived as a betrayal of the working class in the City of London.

Some people would argue that you may take in out of the City of London but that you put it straight back in – 50% of the GLC income goes back in interest payments.

Well, convince the City of that. Part of the problem is that a lot of the tendencies on the left, in a desire to maintain their own credibility when they’re outside the main stream of the movement, always have to find an issue on which they can differentiate themselves from the left within the Labour Party. The rates issue has been used in that way quite cynically by some of the Left tendencies in an attempt to say the Labour Party are betraying.

I have nothing but contempt for those left tendencies who have sought really to go over Ted Knight and attack Lambeth, while bypassing the appallingly right-wing councillors that have passed on every cut in order to keep the rates down right the way across London. One would almost have the feeling that there was only one council in London – it was Lambeth and that was the centre of the fight. I think that’s been very counterproductive, and I think that reflects the bankruptcy of some of the tendencies on the left, in their own desire to try and recruit members in the most cynical way.

Last updated on 21 September 2019