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The rise and fall of socialism in one city

(Winter 1995)

From International Socialism 2:69, Winter 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Clyde Binfield et al. (eds.)
The History of the City of Sheffield 1843–1993
Volume 1: Politics
Volume II: Society
Volume III: Images
Sheffield Academic Press 1993

Manuel Castells
The City and the Grassroots
Edward Arnold, London 1983

Stuart Lowe
Urban Social Movements – The City After Castells
Macmillan, London 1986

The prospect of Labour in power is once more before us. It is a good moment to look at Labour’s rule in Sheffield this century. Two essays in the Binfield history, William Hampton’s examination of the optimistic period between 1951 and 1973 and Pat Seyd’s final essay in the first volume, are especially interesting. [1] Their claim is that the politics of Sheffield’s council were shaped by the interaction of ‘spontaneous’ urban social movements ‘outside the structure of the mainstream political parties’ [2] and the ‘new urban left’ dominated by the ‘new professional classes’ who decided council policy. The responses of Sheffield’s citizens to these administrators gave rise to the movements that, in the Thatcher years, came under the control of the new urban left. [3]

Strategies for struggle in Sheffield from the 1950s to the 1990s

Hampton and Seyd’s new social movements produced blueprints for radical projects to create alternative employment as a substitute for the jobs lost in the real factories and workshops that were being shut down by land hungry capitalists, eager to replace Sheffield’s traditional industries with shopping malls and entertainment arenas. The energies of some skilled workers were thus diverted from the struggles that took place against factory closures. In order to implement alternative schemes, co-operation with local capitalists seemed to hold out the best source of finance. Workshops were developed for retraining workers, apparently deskilled by new technologies, and for the advancement of women and ethnic minorities. The town hall professionals designed projects for civic regeneration, the new urban leaders popularised them in the ranks of the Labour Party and, in the words of Hampton, the resulting ‘discourses set the pattern for Sheffield’s political future.’ [4]

Seyd monitors the confrontation between Sheffield’s new left and the Thatcher government which attacked these strategies for a local ‘socialist’ economy, in favour of giving private capitalists a completely free hand. He shows how, firstly, the old style local government officers in Sheffield town hall were replaced by radical professional planners. Convinced by the new left that alternative strategies were viable, local campaigning groups were persuaded to substitute consultation with the council for confrontation with the employers. Many working class activists, particularly the recently unemployed, wished to take the struggle against the company closures and redundancies back into the factories. These tactics were rejected by the new left. [5]

Seyd does not record the trade union struggles against redundancies that led the councillors to reject these calls. General support for the right to work campaigns and for such trade union actions as the ‘People’s March for Jobs’ was based in the City Council’s newly formed Centres Against Unemployment, that were partly funded by the government’s Manpower Services Commission. [6] The MSC threatened to withdraw its proposals to fund the retraining of redundant workers if the Labour council endorsed the calls for campaigns and strikes against further redundancies that came from the Unemployment Centres. The councillors then applied pressure to expel right to work campaigners from the centres, though a small number of these who had organised under the banner of the official trade unions for the ‘People’s March for Jobs’ were given administrative jobs in the unemployment centres and in the various policy units created by the council.

Seyd acknowledges that the Labour left in Sheffield, under the leadership of David Blunkett, conceded to the right wing in the party and abdicated from the struggle. He argues that mistakes over funding could have been averted, had the left at an earlier date joined the public-private partnership, the popular front, or ‘leadership alliance’ coalition for growth and civic renewal that is the present strategy of Tony Blair’s Labour Party. [7] In this Seyd is wrong. The policies of the council accepted the role of the MSC in promoting collaboration at the very beginning of the rise in unemployment, but this only enabled local businessmen to close down their factories more rapidly on the false promise that retraining would bring in alternative work. Popular front strategies were anticipated by the Castells school of urban political studies in 1977 and continue to be endorsed by his disciples, but in practice in Sheffield they led to the defeat of organised workers. [8]

Entry into these coalitions was made eventually by the Labour council in Sheffield through membership of the Urban Development Corporation and through the World Student Games which provided three weeks of games but left £147 million of debt. Seyd agrees that in political terms the cost to the Labour left was even higher. The Labour council was faced with the prospect of being starved of their main sources of income, which came from local rates and central government subsidies from the Tories. In response, the council, Sheffield’s biggest employer, announced a no-redundancy policy to try and offset the massive job losses from surrounding industries. This policy ran the council into deficit, which it tried to overcome by refusing to set the Tory government’s ‘ratecapping’ reduction in local revenues. Seyd reports that, despite a two to one majority in the local Labour parties in favour of defying the Tories, the new left capitulated in May 1985, insisting that a new realism prevailed under which no new government laws should be broken. Left Labour opposition in general to the 1984 Rate Act, under which local government expenditures were fixed below the levels required to meet the needs of local workers, was thus broken by the same elected representatives who had called for a fight against the act in the first place. Seyd, accepting the logic of this new realism, pinpoints this collapse as the end of the new left in Sheffield but he fails to explain how committed socialists, who fought and continue to fight against racism and sexism, and who believed in the central role of the organised working class, failed to build the counter-attack against Tory policies on the great wave of struggles that took place in the city and in its surrounding regions from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. [9]

A factual history of the period 1951 to 1993 would record the scale and frequency of these struggles. They started in the 1950s and 1960s with a large number of small strikes led mainly by Communist Party dominated shop stewards’ committees. As the employers counter-attacked, vital strikes took place, two to three weeks long, to protect the stewards’ organisations at Millspaugh’s and at Shardlow’s in 1965 and 1966. Then came the massive local and national miners’ strikes of 1969 and 1972–1974 which used flying pickets, followed by longer strikes and mass pickets against the sackings of Betty Holden and Sylvia Greenwood, union convenors at Footprint and Presto lighter tool factories. Widespread factory occupations in the heavy forging and engineering sectors in the mid-1970s reached a peak in the massive rally in Norfolk Park, at which Tony Benn, the minister for industry, supported the workers’ sit-in at the River Don Steelworks. These are only the most significant events in an entire period of struggle. It continued defensively but determinedly with the steel workers’ and miners’ strikes of 1980 and 1984–1985, up to the huge wave of protests in Sheffield against the poll tax that helped to bring down Thatcher’s premiership, in a mood of popular anger against the Tories, that continued, through the massive public outrage against pit closures in 1992, to this day.

By omitting these events the editors of the Binfield history did not set out deliberately to falsify history. Their main purpose in preparing these volumes was to record Sheffield’s leadership of the ‘counter-national tendency’, which ‘protects individuals from despotism’ with the aid of the churches, the magistrates, the universities and the town corporations. [10] But these organisations failed to achieve unity against ‘despotism’ in the years of Thatcher. One example was the row between the new left on Sheffield Trades and Labour Council and Sheffield University when in July 1984 the university registrar, Dr John Padley, rented student accommodation and provided early breakfasts to highly paid strike breaking police squads who were mounting baton charges against the pickets of striking miners defending their jobs at the Orgreave coking plant.

The new left and the Sheffield Communist Party

One obvious example of the failure of a popular front strategy was the attempt at economic and civic regeneration through productivity agreements, made by the late George Caborn, leading Communist Party member and Sheffield district secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. He signed productivity deals between the unions and the employers which led inevitably to cuts in the labour force and to reductions in take home pay for workers. But this capitulation to the employers, endorsed by the CP’s new left partners in the Broad Left, failed to secure the reinvestment by private capitalists in Sheffield industries that most full time union officials believed would follow.

The failure of the popular front strategy was starkly demonstrated in the steel industry. When the right wing Iron and Steel Trades Confederation leader, Bill Sirs, unilaterally brought to an end the three month old national steel strike in 1980, he endorsed the drive of the nationalised British Steel Corporation for internationally competitive levels of labour productivity by signing away 100,000 jobs in the industry nationally and 20,000 locally. None of these details appears in the Binfield history of Sheffield, in which Sidney Pollard writes about the labour movement and Geoffrey Tweedale writes about the steel industry.

Seyd, covering the last 20 years of the left in Sheffield, looks at the claims that fostered ‘the myth of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. He refers to schemes for the replacement of the declining steel and tool industries (nearly 20,000 toolmakers lost their jobs between 1970 and 1991 and the heavy forgings industry declined from 13,000 workers in 1973 to 5,000 in 1983) with workers’ co-operatives financed out of local state capital. [11] His statistics show the extent of their failure. Over 53,000 more jobs were lost in coal, manufacturing and construction than were gained in the service industries from 1971 to 1989. [12]

Other campaigns were advanced. Sheffield became a nuclear free zone and peace centre. It was among the first to take up the challenges raised by the Labour government’s social contract after 1974, when, in return for the TUC’s agreement to implement wage controls and productivity bargaining, the rank and file of the unions were offered the Employment and Industrial Tribunals Acts, the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, the women’s Equal Pay Act of 1975 and the Sex Discrimination and Race Equality Acts of 1975–1977.

Units to implement most of these legal enactments were soon in place in the city’s administration. Seyd describes how the defence of these innovations after the Thatcher election victory in 1979 threw the city council into political confrontations with central government. But in reality the freedom of action of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ had already been undermined by the financial squeezes imposed by the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan between 1974 and 1979, which had also set up the MSC that fostered the myth of retraining.

Housing, the keystone for Labour

Hampton gives much attention to council housing, the bread and butter issue for any Labour council in the two decades after 1945. He examines the city council’s move into high rise housing development. He describes how the rural ratepayers’ movement in the village parishes around Sheffield in the 1950s and early 1960s fought to keep the council from swallowing up the surrounding green belt, thus depriving it of building land for council houses. He claims that the resultant shortage of land forced it to build high rise blocks, with special grants from central government to meet the extra costs. But this explanation does not exonerate the Labour council from its decision to accept the low cost, high density building techniques that accelerated the premature deterioration and early demolition of over 3,000 high rise dwellings. The decisions in the late 1960s to house working class families as cheaply as possible were not opposed by the new left. In Sheffield they led to the grotesque Laurel and Hardy solution to the resulting inner city housing decay, in which the graffiti covered city centre pedestrian underpasses and concourses were filled with rubble from the once acclaimed but now demolished 18 storey Hyde Park complex of ‘streets in the sky safe for children to play in and the elderly to stroll’. [13]

The policy of council house sales, which was Thatcher’s ‘flagship’ solution to housing shortages, was used to break the hold of Labour councils over the public housing rental market. Sheffield’s Labour council owned 45 percent of the local housing stock in 1981. [14] However, the policy of selling off this stock was introduced by the right wing leadership of Sheffield City Council in 1965. After over a decade of tenants’ struggles it was eventually taken up nationally by the left wing housing minister, Peter Shore, in the Callaghan Labour government, two years before Thatcher came to power. Labour’s commitment in 1977 to expand owner occupation and to undertake the sale of council houses to ‘enhance housing choices’ thus laid the ground for the abandonment of council housing as a public service which for generations had been the keystone of working class support for Labour. [15] Seyd shows how council house sales were not resisted politically in Sheffield by the left but held back instead by a strategy of bureaucratic discouragement. Given the absence of so many of these facts from the Binfield history, what can be learnt from it?

The relevance of urban social movements

As Hampton calls on the ideas of Manuel Castells to explain the strategies of the new urban left in the 1970s and 1980s, Castells’ theories must be looked at more closely and applied to what actually happened, particularly in the battles over rents. In his major study, The City and the Grassroots, Castells documents as ‘urban social movements’ many of the struggles that have led to important and major changes in the lives of city dwellers. They range from the comunidades of Castille in the 1520s, the 1871 Paris Commune, the Glasgow rent strike of 1915 and the US inner city revolts of the 1960s to the struggles of the gay community in San Francisco, the squatter camps of the Third World and the Madrid citizens’ movement that arose in the final years of the Franco dictatorship. Hampton, with the aid of Stuart Lowe, adds the Sheffield rent strike of 1967–1978 to this list. [16]

Originally, Castells kept within an academic Marxist framework, using ideas from Althusser and Poulantzas to describe the part played by the state in urban development. The state is necessary, in this view, to act as the mediator of urban development and change, outside the struggles between the classes. The state encourages planning as a way of avoiding the conflicts that take place between city inhabitants over the consumption of available spaces and services. For Hampton, planning is the priority of local state elites or qualified professionals who work under democratically elected councillors to set the ‘discourses’ between conflicting parties. Both these views of the state ignore the Marxist understanding of the state as the enforcer of the legal system that capitalism requires to exercise control over the classes under its rule. Local government acts ultimately as a branch of the central state. As a consequence, planning is subordinated to the needs of capitalists, despite all the ‘discourses’ of public participation and official inquiries.

Castells’ work goes through a number of phases. At first, he recognises the importance of class struggle as the motor of social change. But he insists that labour power is reproduced by the collective consumption which takes place in cities. Marxists would argue to the contrary, that town and city development is shaped by the concentration of labour in the production process dominated by capital. Cities, like capitalist enterprises, are removed from the collective control of workers by the institution of capitalist property rights and operate through competition for the right to control the land and air spaces in them. Thus cities appear not as the spatial organisation of workers’ consumption of the means to life, but as the constriction of their lives by the bricks, mortar and highways of capitalist production. In his later works Castells drops any attempt to relate city growth to class conflict. He makes almost no reference to property rights or to competition. In his most recent writings, cities become the location of informational, not of industrial production. [17] Cities become the historical establishment of social and tribal identities, subject, for example, to the conflicts that arise from the replacement of male manual labour by female service labour in the job market.

Thus urban social movements are reduced, from the powerful motors for structural social change of his earlier works, to the level of territorial street confrontations over the occupation of meaningful space, between the business corporations’ monopoly of ‘beauty and tradition’ and the ‘urban counter-cultures making a stand on the use-value of the city’. Optimistic hopes for social transformation change to a pessimistic anticipation of ‘structural urban schizophrenia’. But the theory that predicts a future of urban madness is based upon the misinterpretation of history.

Rent strikes: class struggles or urban social movements?

As documented by the followers of the Castells school the 1915 Glasgow and 1967 Sheffield rent strikes lose their significance as confrontations with capitalist property. In the interpretations of Hampton and Lowe, they are seen instead as vain appeals to the state for the moderation of the impact of the market upon social and private housing provision. Emphasis is given in these struggles to women who are, apparently, outside the class struggle. They are ultimately let down by the lack of concern of male workers for the domestic burden of rent paying which makes trade unionists indifferent to anything but an economistic struggle against the power of capital, thus playing into its hands.

The real picture shows exactly the opposite potential. Even in Castells’ own description of the thousands of ‘black faced’ workers who surrounded the rent offices in Glasgow in 1915, forcing the repayment by landlords of excessive rents to the tenants, we see the potential of workers’ power to control and redistribute wealth, in the strike action that brought them onto the streets. Some employers, because they were anxious to get the munitions workers back to work and to maintain their war profits, supported state imposed rent controls, yet Castells argues that the ‘rent strike can hardly be considered a struggle against capital, in that it did not oppose the capitalists’. [18]

Stuart Lowe, using a similarly negative argument, assumes that, because women on the Sheffield council housing estates called the first protest meetings against differential rent increases in early 1967, the organised rent strike movement that followed was a ‘spontaneous social movement’, not a class struggle. [19] Further, as the immediate opponent of the rent strikers was an elected Labour municipal authority, no capitalist interests were at stake. [20] To the contrary, the motive force behind the Labour council’s decision to raise the rents lay in its legal obligation to balance the housing revenue account at a time when the rising cost to local councils of servicing its borrowings from capitalists added to its expenses in managing the growing council housing sector. Following the economic crisis of the mid-1960s, higher rents were the direct result of higher interest charges made by finance capital. Lowe insists also that the gains of the Glasgow rent strike, that enforced 50 years of rent controls by the state on the class of private landlords, ‘did not succeed in challenging the fundamental power of the dominant class’. [21] Both Lowe and Castells thus fail to recognise the part played by the working class in the reform of the capitalist system, let alone in its overthrow.

Hampton, Lowe and Seyd all record how the rent strike enabled the new left to unseat the aldermanic old guard regime of the Labour right wing in Sheffield. Tenants’ candidates intervened in the 1968 local elections and allowed the Conservatives to take power for one year, only the second time they had been in office for a 12 month period since 1926. The Tories opportunistically lowered council rents and the left Labour succession continued to do so. Many tenants’ leaders and association members came to the tenants’ committees from previous activity in the Trades and Labour Council in Sheffield and from well organised engineering factories like Ambrose Shardlow’s. They were reacting not only to their worsening conditions as tenants but to the introduction of productivity bargaining at the workplace which had reduced their powers to demand more pay on enhanced piece-work earnings, as a means to recover the money they lost to rent increases. Given these historical facts, the rent strike was indisputably a central part of the wider class struggle.

Those who see such actions as urban social movements ask why the council tenants failed in the long run to protect public housing from the pressures of the market. The answer lies in Labour’s retreat from the commitments it made in 1962. At the Labour Party conference in that year Anthony Greenwood, speaking for the NEC as Labour’s shadow housing minister, said, ‘We are living in an absurd and squalid system of society in which it is possible for some people to hold others up to ransom and to charge us £12,062 for a twelfth storey flat in a tower block which originally cost only £3,254.’ When he took office under Wilson, he went on to support the very system that allowed such absurdities to continue. Only the mass movement of tenants and workers showed how such a squalid system could be abolished in favour of one that gives priority to the needs of the mass of city dwellers against the state and the speculative giants of the property markets who presently dominate urban living. For Castells, occupying space in a city and using its services is a form of social consumption that is separate from the production of commodities that subordinates workers to the needs of capitalism in the growth of towns and cities. However, this separation in theory leads to the separation of urban social movements from workers’ struggles in practice, with the consequent result that both are considerably weakened.


In the present decade movements continue to arise to confront the absurdities emanating from the unregulated sprawl of city growth, with all its damaging consequences. Campaigns against motorway extensions, road tolls, noise and environmental pollution join up with New Age travellers, squatters and ravers to demand some rational improvement in social living. If all these movements fail to link up into a generalised struggle against those who exclusively exercise economic power, then their failures will far outweigh their successes. In practice and in theory, the new left in Sheffield, at best, created castles in the air; at worst, they accelerated defeat for its workers who continue to suffer the consequences. But the restructuring of capitalist production in Sheffield still leaves the road clear to major social change through class struggle, organised through the continual confrontations workers in cities have with the owners of property, state or private.


1. P. Seyd, The Political Management of Decline 1973–1993, The History of the City of Sheffield, Vol. 1 (1993), pp. 151–185. Seyd’s previous work on the Labour left was The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left (London 1987).

2. W.A. Hampton, Optimism and Growth, 1951–1973, The History of the City of Sheffield, Vol. 1 (1993), p. 121.

3. The phrase was originated by J. Gyford, The New Urban Left: a Local Road to Socialism?, New Society, 21 April 1983.

4. W.A. Hampton, op. cit. (1993), Vol. 1, pp. 120–121 and 200, footnote 2. Michael Foucault is quoted on discourses and the ‘unique’ qualifications of professional managers to ‘deal with these problems’.

5. P. Seyd, op. cit. (1993), Vol. 1, p. 170.

6. S. Pollard in his essay on Labour in Sheffield (1993) in The History of the City of Sheffield, Vol. 11, pp. 260–278, describes the Unemployment Centres as giving social, educational and informational facilities and a voice to the unemployed.

7. P. Seyd, op. cit. (1993), Vol. 1, p. 162.

8. “‘Urban’ social contradictions ... are of a ‘pluri-class’ nature ... ‘urban politics’ is an essential element in the formation of class alliances, in particular in relation to the petit-bourgeoisie.” Quote from M. Castells, The Urban Question – A Marxist Approach (London 1987), pp. 432–433. Seyd does not use this concept though he advocates ‘The public-private partnership’ to make ‘pluri-classism’ a reality. See also S. Lowe, Urban Social Movements – The City After Castells (London 1986), for a critique of the use of this concept, while supporting the movements arising from it as ‘seeds of the new politics in the womb of the old,’ p. 202.

9. P. Seyd, op. cit. (1993), Vol. 1, p. 168.

10. C. Binfield, Introduction to The History of the City of Sheffield, Vol. II, p. 6.

11. G. Tweedale, The Business and Technology of Sheffield Steelmaking, The History of the City of Sheffield, Vol. II, pp. 188, 192.

12. P. Seyd. op. cit. (1993), Vol. I, Table 1, p. 153.

13. The quote is adapted from Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield (Corporation of Sheffield, April 1962), pp. 42–47, and A.D.H. Crook, Housing Policy After 1914, in The History of the City of Sheffield, Binfield et al. (1993), Vol. II, p. 83. Crook describes the ‘streets in the sky’ concept as ‘a romanticisation of working class life by the architects’.

14. A.D.H. Crook, op. cit. (1993), table 8, p. 96.

15. Housing Policy, Cmnd 6851, HMSO (1977), quoted in D. Maclennan, Housing Economics (Longman 1982), p. 141.

16. See footnote 8, S. Lowe, op. cit. (1986), p. 94.

17. M. Castells, The Future of the City, New Left Review, No. 204 (March/April 1994), p. 18.

18. M. Castells, op. cit. (1983), p. 35. Castells calls on the work of Joseph Melling for support for his views on the Glasgow Rent Strike and provides a bibliography on p. 397, fn 62.

19. W. Hampton, Democracy and Community in Sheffield (London 1970); S. Lowe, op. cit. (1986), p. 113. Reports of the rent strike from the Sheffield IS group appeared in International Socialism, Series 1, No. 31, Winter 1967–8, p. 6. Rent strikes and tenants campaigns in London, York, Newcastle, Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham are covered in the same issue and by I. Macdonald, Housing – The Struggle for Tenants’ Control, International Socialism, Series 1, No. 33, Summer 1968, p. 7.

20. S. Lowe, op. cit. (1986), p. 112.

21. Ibid., p. 37. Lowe also argues that the building society movement of the 1920s was more radical in its consequences than the events in Glasgow in 1915.

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