Socialist Worker

The real record of the GLC

Issue No. 1670

Tony Blair and his cronies are out to block Ken Livingstone from becoming London mayor. Only last week Neil Kinnock, former Labour Party leader, said: 'When people get down to remembering Ken's real record as the man who brought about the destruction of the Greater London Council, the man who invented the London loony left, then they'll say we really don't want this guy to represent the greatest city in the world.'

Kinnock is trying to resurrect the Tory image of the 'loony left' GLC. But the right wing hated the GLC because it became a symbol of resistance to Thatcher. The Tories had controlled the GLC from 1977 until 1981. The Tory leader of the council was known as Horace 'Cuts' Cutler. Cutler and his County Hall hatchet men slashed 5,000 jobs, cut the education budget by £17 million and diverted funding from London's poor inner city areas to rich neighbourhoods.

In the GLC elections of May 1981 nearly a million Londoners voted Labour. The Tories were booted out. The GLC under the leadership of Ken Livingstone set about introducing a number of reforms.

The first was the Fares Fair campaign. The GLC cut bus and tube fares by 25 percent. It was a brilliant success. After 30 years of steady decline, passenger traffic increased by 11 percent on the buses and 7 percent on London Underground. More buses were put on the roads, more trains on the track and London Transport took on 600 extra staff.

The GLC enraged the Tories over other issues. It erected a giant sign on the top of its headquarters in County Hall showing the number of unemployed in London. It was a constant reminder of the Tories' disregard for the unemployed. When the GLC offered £20 million to British Rail to reduce its fares in London, Heseltine, the Tory minister, threatened to cut the government subsidy to British Rail by the same amount.

Tory-controlled Bromley council in south London opposed Fares Fair. It took the GLC to court, supported by Thatcher. The Law Lords ruled that the Fares Fare policy was illegal. When the GLC tried to introduce anti-discriminatory policies the press vilified it. A £3,500 donation to a refuge for prostitutes was branded as 'Pornography On The Rates' by the Daily Mail. When the GLC gave a £15,000 grant to a company to train black businessmen, the Sun accused it of 'reverse racism'.

The policies which the GLC campaigned for in the 1980s are now seen as mainstream. In 1982 Ken Livingstone met Sinn Fein representatives in a search for peace. The media denounced his stance. Yet it has since been revealed that throughout the 1980s the Tory government was involved in secret negotiations with the IRA.

The Tories and the press did their best to undermine the GLC but they failed. So in 1986 they abolished it. Neil Kinnock let it happen. The Labour Party leadership used the media attacks against the GLC to help push the Labour Party to the right. Today Kinnock accuses the GLC of making the Labour Party unelectable. Yet Labour support in London grew during the 1980s.

In the 1984 Euro elections London produced Labour's best results, with more gains and bigger swings than in any other region. A survey conducted just before the abolition of the GLC found almost three quarters of Londoners opposed its abolition.

Missed opportunities

The GLC under Ken Livingstone had its weaknesses, but the problem was not that it was too left wing. Sadly, at key moments, Livingstone was prepared to compromise with right wing Labour leaders. He put his faith in vague 'people's campaigns' rather than militant action. When the Law Lords declared that the Fares Fair policy was illegal the Labour leaders of the GLC pinned their hopes on a propaganda campaign.

Some councillors believed that consumer action was the way forward. They argued that on the crucial day when the fares were supposed to rise there should be a mass campaign of non-payment. It was a dismal failure with just a few hundred people refusing to pay.

Ken Livingstone did not support the boycott but had no alternative strategy. There was no real link with transport workers or any attempt to put strikes at the core of the fight. Yet it could have been different. Just two weeks earlier a one day strike by London Transport workers in defence of low fares was a magnificent success. Not a single bus or tube ran. But Ken Livingstone did not argue to deepen this struggle. The result was a tragic missed opportunity to turn the support for Fares Fair into aggressive anti-Tory defiance.

In October 1983 the Tory government published plans to abolish the GLC and the Metropolitan County Councils. In January 1984 a national demonstration in London saw almost 30,000 people march (on a Tuesday) to oppose the plan, with teachers, firefighters and council workers striking to take part. But the campaign was again pitched as a 'people's crusade', with a Tory GLC councillor allowed to speak as well.

The Tories then decided to put a limit on local councils' ability to increase the rates. This would force councils to make huge cuts. Some 25 councils banded together to say they would not set a rate. Ken Livingstone was at the head of the movement. In November 1984 up to 100,000 workers struck across London and over 20,000 marched in protest at the Tories' plans. Ken Livingstone was cheered when he said the £6,000 million owed by the councils to the banks would not be paid.

But as the Labour leaders urged compliance with the law, Ken Livingstone's GLC was the first to crack. In March the GLC set a rate and accepted huge cuts. This retreat led to the collapse of the anti-ratecapping movement, just as the union and Labour leaders were betraying the great strike by the miners.

Media myths

Goldsmiths' College in London did a survey of GLC policies and found that EVERY example of supposed 'looniness' was a lie.

  • LIE: Islington council banned the use of 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' in its nurseries.
  • LIE: Haringey council instructed its staff not to ask for black coffee because it would be racist.
  • LIE: Bernie Grant banned black dustbin liners because they were racist.

Old friends

MANY OF the Labour leaders who now denounce Ken Livingstone as a 'loony lefty' followed similar policies in the 1980s.

  • David Blunkett, now education secretary, was the leader of Sheffield City Council. South Yorkshire was dubbed the 'Socialist Republic'.
  • Alistair Darling, now social services secretary, was a leading left winger on Lothian Regional Council and hailed the GLC's policies as 'a model for others to follow'.
  • Margaret Hodge, now an education minister, was the leader of 'Fortress Islington', where she called for defiance over ratecapping.

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Article information

Sat 30 Oct 1999, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1670
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