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Burning Bridges: A Review of ‘Red Metropolis’

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Daniel Frost / October 16, 2021
Owen Hatherley's Red Metropolis is a valuable account of the achievements of the London Left—but is limited by its pessimism and an unwillingness to draw lines. 9265 words / 36 min read

Image: Abu Khan


In September 2020, there were some who noted a surprisingly candid reply from former Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, to a tweet from Novara Media co-founder Aaron Bastani. Responding to a thread about a podcast on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she complained that there was ‘not enough context’: ‘anyone old enough to remember the John McDonnell/Ken Livingstone fall out in the GLC era could foresee what would happen between him and Jeremy. And for the same reasons.’

For many, it was a confusing tweet. A rift between McDonnell and Abbott had not been widely discussed – a rift between McDonnell and Corbyn, even, was not quite self-evident. And the dispute between Livingstone and McDonnell to which it referred seemed to have little to do with anything that transpired under Corbyn’s leadership, Livingstone’s antics on television and radio aside. In the 1980s, John McDonnell – the Greater London Council’s chair of finance, and Livingstone’s deputy – had clashed with the GLC’s leader over the appropriate way to support the rate-capping rebellion led by Militant-led Liverpool and Ted Knight’s Lambeth. Whereas McDonnell reportedly favoured fudging London’s budgets to ensure they could stand in solidarity with the rebelling councils (which, it should be noted, he denies), Livingstone – in a turn of phrase which shows his penchant for a particular point of historical reference – complained that to do so would make them ‘look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels.’

The relevance of all of this to Corbyn’s leadership and particularly the struggles around Brexit may appear arcane.1 But they demonstrate that if, as one reviewer of his Red Metropolis has noted, Owen Hatherley is not quite over the defeats of the 2019 general election, then many of those who were in charge at that time are not quite over the defeats of the 1980s, and the last great grasp by municipal socialists at the ‘government of London’.

In Red Metropolis, Hatherley – culture editor of Tribune and frequent contributor to New Socialist – sets out to describe a ‘third London’ distinguishable from its roles in national government and the global financial market: a social-democratic, even left-wing, London, in which social-democrats, even socialists, can take pride. In the process, he challenges narratives of London which take its most privileged residents as the norm, which set it up in inexorable conflict with ‘the north’ – note Hatherley’s argument to this effect in Tribune – and which see municipal government as nothing more than a site of defeat.

These are points which were also made in the Hatherley-edited Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs, a collection of chapters which by virtue of its organisation does a good job of reflecting London’s complexity, and to which Red Metropolis will inevitably be compared.2 In contrast to some of Hatherley’s other work, Red Metropolis was conceived as a specific political intervention intended to bring to light sources of pride, and examples of the possible, in the history of London.

Hatherley does a very good, valuable job of showing that the London left (however conceived) has ‘done [things], and done them most often in conditions of great hostility’. (p.243) The first example of this which Hatherley discusses is the experience of the London County Council. For William Morris, as Hatherley quotes him in 1889, the county councils showed ‘signs of life and a tendency towards Socialism which were certainly never looked for by the Tory party who brought in the bill which created them’ (p.24), because he saw these county councils as holding powers and being open to popular pressure in a way that the British parliament was not.

Although Hatherley’s evaluation of the LCC, and of its Labour leader from 1934 to 1940, Herbert Morrison, is not quite mine, his history of the construction of local social democracy is astute and compelling. Above all, though, it’s Hatherley’s invocation of the spirit of Morris in 1889 which is effective – an argument against simplistic dismissals against the wielding of state power from one of the more ardent socialist critics of the state, and an argument for socialists to advance and retreat in search of those ‘signs of life’. As discussed in New Socialist’s interview with Hatherley, this approach treats Morrison as a pedagogue, whose work in London provided an example for the subsequent national government of Clement Attlee to follow, extending what working-class people felt able to demand. I might quibble over exactly what Morrison was teaching, of course, but it is also a recognition of the educational, transformative capacity of political action which cannot be dispensed with – an appreciation of the ways in which our ideas of the possible might be altered.

The Morrisonianism of the first substantive chapter sets up – after a somewhat-too-brief, but forgivably so, survey of both the post-Morrison LCC and the pre-Livingstone GLC – the major consideration of the next: the 1980s ‘new urban left’. If the first chapter was aimed at the ‘soft left’ members of Hatherley’s audience – on which more in a moment – this description of ‘a period in which their forebears constructed a new and viable socialism’ (pp.107-109) is aimed squarely at the left proper. ‘The raw intellectual and policy organisations around Corbynism,’ Hatherley notes, including New Socialist,3 ‘have treated the 1981-1986 era when the New Left under Ken Livingstone ran London as a sort of social democratic Paris Commune.’ (p.107)

As a result, the positive things which Hatherley has to say about the 1980s GLC are less striking than his criticisms. Distinguishing between the GLC’s ‘industrial’ and ‘propagandistic’ programmes, Hatherley narrates effectively the attempt to grapple with both the limitations of top-down Morrisonian nationalisations and the puritanism of social democrats for whom preventing people having sex in lidos was a serious consideration.4 In the process, he shows the ways that the GLC remade the social-democratic coalition in London, which has proven enduring in subsequent decades, and prefigured Labour’s return to government nationally in the 1990s. At the same time, as with Morris’ argument that the county councils were less determined by parliamentarism and more open to popular pressure, the ‘new urban left’ of the GLC seized the opportunities of a shrinking London and a genuine overlap with (as well as a contestation of) the rhetoric and policies of the Thatcher government.5 If, as will be seen, Hatherley is decidedly less impressed by the GLC’s convergences with Thatcherism than he was by Morrison’s convergences with earlier Toryisms, the precedent that’s set is similar – a politics of beginning in the ‘bad new times’, working with the material that we have to hand.

This does not mean that Hatherley advocates a straightforward reformism nor a total absorption by the spirit of the times. A third chapter dealing with the Greater London Assembly and the Mayoralty since its creation in 2000 – a period in which power shifted from Livingstone to Johnson to Khan but where key features remained intact – is exceptionally clear in its dismantlement of the Faustian bargains into which London’s latter-day Labour leaders have entered. As Hatherley explains, in an argument indebted to the brilliant Doreen Massey, both Livingstone and Khan have attempted to use London’s property booms and the City to support improvements in public transport and the laughably-named ‘affordable housing’. Hatherley’s treatment of this compromise is, like Massey, severe without being unsympathetic. Ultimately, he argues, London’s property market is a ‘resource curse’ (p.218) – the use of its proceeds to make available cheaper housing or improved infrastructure skewered as ‘the urbanist equivalent of carbon offsetting.’ (p.161) There’s a difference between beginning with the ‘bad new times’ and simply reproducing them, and Hatherley is articulate in setting out the ways that London’s mayors have merely managed the latter. When set against his record on housing and the City (and the police), the educational value of, say, Livingstone’s oil deal with Venezuela – itself probably the most significant anti-imperialist policy implemented by a political leader in Britain since the 1980s – cannot really compete.

There’s a difference between beginning with the ‘bad new times’ and simply reproducing them, and Hatherley is articulate in setting out the ways that London’s mayors have merely managed the latter.

Red Metropolis is a useful, necessary book – an accessible introduction to the history of London and of its left-wing politics, highly relevant to a socialist milieu which has been heavily shaped by it, but not always consciously. Hatherley writes, it comes as no surprise now, in a lively and engaging way – this isn’t a book which takes many sittings – and illustrates the book throughout in the no-nonsense, rough-and-ready way that has become part of his trademark. Above all, Hatherley stresses the importance of learning from history – and, as activists, making history which can be learned from. This is history in a similar fashion to Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson’s work on revolution in Bolivia, ‘whose successive layers of historical sedimentation comprise the subsoil, loam, landscape, and vistas for current political struggle’.6 Unfortunately, however, the history which Hatherley has written does not always provide the most appropriate foundation for a socialist politics.

Building bridges, building walls: the two sides of the local left?

This has been a more difficult review to write than I had expected. For, if Hatherley is still not quite over the experience of the 2019 general election, then writing this review has revealed to me the extent to which I am not over Croydon: as a resident since 2014 until last year, as the subject of my academic research since 2017, and – most importantly – as the site of my activism within the Labour Party since 2015.

I raise this point partly because Hatherley’s own sense of himself as an activist (or, rather, as a non-activist) is a striking feature of both Red Metropolis and his interview responses and informs the types of possibility which he presents. As he claims, ‘I am less a veteran of the party’s bloody battles than you guys are, and maybe the book’s relative optimism comes from that distance’, and there’s a suggestion that his own optimism about an alliance with the ‘soft left’ – on which more in a moment – might be chalked up to his being ‘naive and inexperienced’. Something striking in this is the exclusion of the things which Hatherley does that – arguably – could be considered activism: his editorship at Tribune, for one, or the talk to Sadiq Khan’s aides which he mentions in our interview. It’s almost an inversion of that famous quote attributed to Morrison about socialism and Labour governments: for Hatherley, activism is whatever Hatherley does not.

This overlaps partially with the distinction in the ‘two sides of the local left’ which Hatherley sets out to bridge, ‘the local social democratic state that has improved the lives of millions for the better, through aggressive, top-down transformations of health, housing, leisure and work; and the local social movements that have brought in the unruly energy and the strong democratic commitment that the most radical bureaucrats can too often forget about.’ (p.3) Originating as an essay in the New Left Review – a journal described by Hatherley as ‘Mandarin Marxists’ – his distinction between bureaucrats and social movements overlaps with the other division which Red Metropolis intends to bridge, between a ‘soft left’ (represented by figures like the London Assembly’s Tom Copley) and the left proper (which Hatherley is generally unwilling to attempt disaggregating in Red Metropolis).7 In his book, Hatherley slightly favours the former group, the politicians and planners whose work his stock-in-trade as a writer, if only because of the tendency for most individuals seem to get collapsed into it under scrutiny.8 This risks succumbing to the division of society into ‘two parts’, described by Marx, which we referred to in our Bad New Times editorial – the reduction of the pedagogical to socialist educators ‘superior to society’.

It is in this affinity for top-down approaches that Hatherley parts company with Morris. In News from Nowhere, one of the first things which the Guest notices about the new London is its bridges. The ‘ugly suspension bridge’ by his house (that is, Hammersmith Bridge – which happens to be closed at the moment) has been torn down and rebuilt ‘of stone arches, splendidly solid, and as graceful as they were strong’.9 If Hatherley’s aesthetic differences with Morris are understandable, there is a metaphorical significance to this passage which goes beyond them – an expression of Morris’ willingness to dismantle and remake, of the possibility of communal and not private expertise. A corollary of Hatherley’s approach is that politics is seen as essentially about coalition-building – when perhaps there are some bridges which need to be burned.10

A corollary of Hatherley’s approach is that politics is seen as essentially about coalition-building – when perhaps there are some bridges which need to be burned.

The differences between Hatherley’s approach and Morris’ are well expressed in the chapter which our editor josie sparrow contributed to the Alternative Guide, discussing Morris’ Red House and his work more generally. As she explains there, Morris distinguished between ‘making socialists’ and ‘building socialism’:

His was not a practice towards some rigid institutional form, later to be imposed upon others, who would soon learn to live according to its contours. He saw that all that was required for things to open up was a moment, an encounter – however brief, however flickering – that might suggest, subtly, another way to live. Another way to live, with and for others: birds, humans, trees. For Morris, the task – perhaps the duty – of those of us who had already experienced this moment of transformation was to create spaces within which others might do so, too.’

If the opening of encounters was well-attended in his invocation of Morris in 1889, Hatherley, chronicler of socialist buildings and socialists building, is nevertheless continually tempted by the desire to build socialists and not make them – in much the same way that Morrison might have sought to build the Tories out of London, Hatherley is keen to find ways of building socialists in. An emphasis on making rather than building socialists means an acceptance of the material which is to be worked with and a recognition that what we make (and the way we make) also makes us – it means a level of trust to which the pessimism that tempts Hatherley is inimical.

This comes through in Hatherley’s historical discussion – set out in what seems like a neat distinction between the first chapter on the LCC and Morrison, an ode to London’s bureaucrats (and a friendly trolling of the Labour Right), and its second, a discussion of the social movements involved in the 1980s GLC expected to appeal, as mentioned above, to the ‘new left’ constellations associated with Corbynism.11 Both are marked, in different ways, by the limitations of Hatherley’s distinction, and by the pessimism which pulls Hatherley back and away from a socialist rather than social-democratic commitment. They are also both associated with what Hatherley describes as the geographical centre of social-democratic London, in the South Bank: home to County Hall, the old headquarters of the London County Council and GLC, the buildings associated with the Festival of Britain in 1951, the pet project of Herbert Morrison as a member of the post-war Attlee government, and the bold public entertainments offered during the 1980s.

Both the discussion of the LCC and Morrison and of the social movements involved in the 1980s GLC are marked by the pessimism which pulls Hatherley back and away from a socialist rather than social-democratic commitment.

Whereas Hatherley presents the Festival of Britain as ‘the cultural showcase the laissez-faire city never had’ (p.21), other treatments have emphasised that it was ‘less the symbol of social democracy in action than an unleashing of talented professionals egged on by the Great and the Good’, with representations of social services, education, and working-class housing taking a marked backseat compared to town planning, scientific progress and culture.12 It’s at points like these that Hatherley’s taxonomy of three Londons becomes most ambiguous. Whilst, earlier, Hatherley had acknowledged that a ‘pedant or enthusiast for Jacobean theatre’ (p.12) might elevate Southwark alongside Westminster and the City as London’s ‘third city’, the connection between this heterotopic London and his third, social-democratic one are not considered: an ‘other’ London which provides a mirror but also a masque for the other Londons across the Thames. It is not that Hatherley is unaware that the expansion of the state could be technocratic, paternalist and accommodating as well as explicitly socialist – he notes that even the interwar Conservative LCC ‘was surprisingly interested in the experiments of Vienna City Council under the Austro-Marxists’ (p.47) – but that he has chosen to make an argument in which, with the exception of the Greater London Assembly era, the connections between the ‘third London’ and both Westminster and the City are downplayed. Too often, Hatherley is content to reduce socialism to the ‘unleashing of talented professionals’, the technocratic paternalism of mid-century Westminster celebrated simply because it wasn’t laissez-faire. Again, Hatherley is not unaware of the left-wing critiques of this social democracy, but the framework adopted in Red Metropolis limits how far he can accept them, as he laments the fact that Morrison’s ‘name has usually been mud on the Labour left’ (p.62) – a problem when it is the Morrisons of Hatherley’s soft left that he sees as having ‘improved the lives of millions for the better’ of their own accord, the local social movements and the left proper confined, like the crowd at a Jacobean performance, to providing ‘unruly energy’ and a ‘strong democratic commitment’ from the pit.

Whilst there is a note, towards the end, that Sadiq Khan cannot be expected to behave like Morrison ‘unless he is put under enormous pressure’ (p.233), the section on the LCC seems wary of admitting that the sorts of pressure which Morrison faced – an independent, firm Communist Party, say, or the kinds of activism which had earlier characterised ‘Poplarism’ (or at least the memory thereof) – were a constitutive part of what made his variety of local social democracy possible. This has important implications: the later observation that ‘Members would be wiser to look to the example of George Lansbury than that of Herbert Morrison’ (p.243) is provided with a caveat (‘If any legal route to the redress of Londoners’ grievances is blocked…’) which takes the reader away again from the former figure and towards the short-term possibilities of the latter – as a bridge is built to those who’ll never see the legal route as blocked, a wall is built against those who argue that something like Lansburyism is required even when the legal route is ‘open’.

A bridge is built to those who’ll never see the legal route as blocked, a wall is built against those who argue that something like Lansburyism is required even when the legal route is ‘open’.

Hatherley’s defence of Morrisonian social democracy, of course, provides the grounds for his reservations about the criticisms of it which the new left of the 1980s GLC represented. Whilst prepared to accept that these criticisms were generally warranted, Hatherley is again keen to defend the broad sweep of Morrison’s social democracy – charging the GLC’s new left with overstepping the mark, short-sighted when it came to the full ramifications of their assault. This was an observation which was prevalent at the time that those left-wing criticisms of post-war social democracy were being made. As the first issue of the early 1970s underground paper Suburban Press declared: ‘Our fathers tell us of the horrors of the thirties and of the benefits of the present welfare state – so what? This is pessimism. Use history to change now. Don’t wallow in history’s pessimism.’

If Hatherley’s ‘two sides of the local left’ could be relatively easily identified in the Morrison example, however, in his discussion of the GLC it becomes more confusing. A case in point is his disdain for moves by figures like Ted Knight in Lambeth, for whom ‘All unelected municipal “fiefdoms” and power bases were under suspicion and to be broken up, even if they were demonstrably neither corrupt nor incompetent.’ (p.137) As Hatherley complains, ‘looking in the 2020s at what still looks good out of a century of council house building, it is almost always the product of departments that had a stable staff, sizeable (and perhaps unaccountable) power, and large budgets that stand out.’ (p.138) He sees the LCC’s Communist architects as ‘one of the few places where the extra-parliamentary left had significant input’ (p.76), and criticises Knight for alienating Ted Hollamby, the restorer of Morris’ Red House and a former CPGB member whose views could have been those of ‘a radical New Left critic of centralised, functionalist municipal housing’ (p.137) and part of ‘the softer side of the left’ who opposed Knight’s confrontational approach because they ‘had little sense of how high the stakes were politically from 1979 onwards.’ (p.138) So which way around is it? Is Hollamby the new leftist ally of the social movements, failing to work with the local political leader and running into the arms of the Docklands Development Corporation? Or is Knight the left-winger wrongly distrustful of expertise? Whilst Hatherley takes from the episode the lesson that we should avoid alienating groups like Public Practice, ‘people that we should have on our side’, it could equally be argued that the distinction which someone like Hollamby attempted to embody – between his professional work as an architect, and his political commitments as a (former) Communist – cannot be overcome by a politics which still takes that distinction for granted, and which ignores the fact that, whether advanced by Knight or Hollamby, critiques of post-war social democracy had a popular basis, and weren’t the naïve proposals of misguided activists.

The problem with the split between Knight and Hollamby – whichever side we assign to them – is, for Hatherley, that when housing ‘was handed over to “the community”, as in the 1980s, the results were often twee and flimsy – much more concerned about ensuring that a house “looked like a house” rather than the more complex questions of whether that house was well-built and integrated with pleasant public spaces.’ (p.138) Similarly, Hatherley complains about the exclusiveness of the GLC’s Coin Street development: ‘a wonderful enclave, providing good, genuinely affordable social housing in the centre of the metropolis, if you can convince its gatekeepers that you’ll be a good member of the co-operative. What was attractive about LCC housing was it was universal, and you had it by right. The importance of this was too often lost on the GLC New Left, missed through their insistence upon participation in all things.’ (p.130)

I have several issues with this. It is not quite correct to say that there was a right, or at least nowhere near an absolute, unconditional right, to council housing, as the homelessness scandals of the 1960s and the 1970s – as well as the widespread squatting which Hatherley correctly links to the rise of the new urban left – well attests. Indeed, the growing objections to council housing in the 1970s were informed by the fact that it wasn’t a right: rents were arbitrarily raised, allocation was according to desert and not need – a statutory right to housing for homeless people wasn’t introduced until 1977 – and the right to housing did not extend to the right to do what you wanted with it.13 Hatherley’s complaint that popular antipathies to actually-existing council housing provided material for Thatcherism and the expansion of Right to Buy are, undoubtedly, correct – but by assigning responsibility for these antipathies to the new left and not to Morrison, Hatherley abandons the possibility of making something from this material in favour of council housing’s ‘rigid institutional form’.

True, there are good criticisms of the emphases on co-operatives which have sometimes characterised Corbynism, and in particular a tendency to emerge from it which has been excoriated by Mary Robertson for New Socialist. As Hatherley notes, this is a tendency with markedly less appeal on the younger, organised Labour left – admittedly in part because of its inclination towards conformism, sometimes labelled ‘Stalinist’ – than amongst the remnants of the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. The focus on co-operativism forms part of a ‘market socialist’ tendency which surrenders the goals of socialism through the limitations of its process – sacrificing the necessities of a broader struggle for the possibilities of piecemeal, local change.14 To the extent that this was a tendency to which the new left activists conceded ground, though, it was because of the bridges which they built with the ‘bureaucrats’ and not the ones that they burned.

Further, as the label which Robertson applies to her own tendency – ‘participatory socialism’ – implies, the problem is not the problem of ‘participation in all things’ which Hatherley diagnoses. It is true – possibly truer than Hatherley even argues, since he claims slightly optimistically that the GLC ‘insisted upon working out whether each bit of their money was going’ (p.123) – that the GLC handed power over to people who didn’t always use it wisely or use it in ways that were as ‘radical’ as when political radicals did so themselves directly. But the problem there is not too much participation from the people (or the ‘social movements’), but too little real participation from those handing over the power – an acceptance that the people are how they are, a left-wing version of ‘the customer is always right’. What’s an issue is not listening too much to the people, it’s refusing to speak with them; it’s accepting the division between ‘bureaucrat’ and ‘social movement’ as fact and assigning to them different roles and responsibilities, refusing the process of the mass line which I attempted to describe in my piece on ‘strategy and tactics’. I think Hatherley’s comment in our interview – supporting ‘a real alliance and dialogue and creative process (…) between the architect and the resident’ – is an improvement over the pessimism which sometimes dominates in the book, although the architect/resident distinction remains and looming behind it is the limit to how far that process can be allowed to go.15

The problem is not too much participation from the people, but too little real participation from those handing over the power – an acceptance that the people are how they are, a left-wing version of ‘the customer is always right’.

As a result, although Hatherley sets out to dispel the pessimism which set in easily after the 2019 general election, his optimism about short-term possibilities belies a much greater pessimism about socialism in the longer one – an unwillingness to embrace the struggle without guarantees.16 This failure is wrapped up with the distinction which Hatherley does make, between his ‘two sides of the local left’, a distinction which he allows to be bridged but not overcome, and which both expresses and conceals the greater one – between those who, in Morris’ terms, can build but cannot make, who Hatherley places in command, and the people themselves, kept behind walls.

Croydon as problem: experiences of local politics

Given the difficulties which I raised above, and Hatherley’s disavowing of his own activist experience in our interview, it’s worthwhile returning to a discussion of Croydon and my experiences. Croydon has long been a problem for commentators on London, its inclusion within Greater London still somehow a matter of dispute for those who live there and those who don’t. Croydon – including the outlying estate of New Addington – is difficult to categorise, not least for Hatherley with his arguments both that London is unequal but not particularly segregated, and that the left’s opponent is a ‘government of suburban landlords’. For those inclined to see the urban as one type of place and the suburb as another, rather than seeing urbanism-suburbanism as in productive tension, Croydon is quite difficult to understand.

Nevertheless, Croydon gained a lasting association with Corbynism because of the 2017 general election, when a Conservative majority of 165 held by the former housing minister, Gavin Barwell, was overturned. Some sense of the optimism which we felt then is communicated by the piece which I wrote for New Socialist at the time. And, predictably, Hatherley illustrates a point about Labour’s success in the commuter belt and the suburbs with a picture from Croydon’s Old Town (p.195), captioned ‘the new Red Base’.

Yet despite several years in which the number of Momentum-backed councillors has grown, a much less nakedly ‘Blairite’ Labour Group in the first place, and with the trickle of activists relocating from inner London into the borough continuing, Croydon’s political significance today is quite different. National attention was recently drawn to the appalling state of a social housing block owned by the council in South Norwood – another item of bad news in what has been a difficult twelve months for the borough. As Hatherley comments in our interview, the council’s various experiments in stimulating local housing development ‘has led to actual bankruptcy, something I don’t celebrate at all but which came out of the difficult game they played there of trying to play the market and do some kind of municipal social democracy with the proceeds.’ Whilst problems in the local government funding model, austerity and the pandemic have played their part, Croydon’s bankruptcy cannot be divorced from the gambles which it made on Brick by Brick – a council-owned development company – and a Westfield in the town centre.17 But with some exceptions, these were phenomena on which the left in Croydon for the last few years, myself included, were reluctant to comment.

At a Southwark Transformed event in August 2018, Hatherley explains, a break-out session on housing was ‘by far the smallest group’ (p.206) – despite the well-documented attacks on social housing which the local Labour council had long made. By contrast, he notes, sessions on Israel-Palestine or prison abolition were much better attended. As he says, it ‘seemed to confirm a certain stereotype about the London left’ – a view of the left as obsessed with internationalism and the improbable.

It’s not an altogether inaccurate view, either. Certainly, as chair of Croydon’s housing policy working group ahead of its 2018 local elections, serious interest in housing seemed thin on the ground. In Red Metropolis, Hatherley chalks the disinterest in Southwark up to the difficulties of criticising a Labour council ‘lest they risk expulsion’, and because regardless ‘We all know it’s terrible.’ (p.206) Whilst there are elements of truth there, I don’t think it interrogates the problem quite far enough – Hatherley stops short before the left’s difficulties with both local government and housing are really appreciated. This is critical because they are absolutely central to the politics which Red Metropolis outlines for the future – a politics in which local government and housing provide the basis for a renewed, united and confident left.

In the last few years, in Croydon at least, they have provided anything but. I think it’s reasonable to say that I was one of the first people to write about Corbynism in local government, in 2017, when the selections process for the following year’s borough elections were still underway. Whilst, then, I was keen to assert the possibilities that I saw ahead of the elections – as I did, again, after them – the reality is that local government has been a profoundly disorganising force for the left in Croydon. As I touched on in an anonymised submission to our activists’ inquiry, the difficulties of a democratic selections process were never properly addressed – from almost right after the 2017 election, thanks to the drive to get people onto the council, activists who had often only just met were thrown into battle against one another as personal ambitions, paranoia and (as I’ll discuss below) occasionally political disagreements led to acrimony and distrust. The apogee of this was the 2019 Fairfield by-election, called after one Momentum-backed councillor resigned following an accusation of domestic violence and, in the selections process which followed, two Momentum members went against each other for the position – a process (that I oversaw as recently-elected chair of the Local Campaign Forum) which terminated in the disqualification of the originally selected candidate and which a Labour Party internal report found involved significant misinformation and pressure on the elected officials.18

The reality is that local government has been a profoundly disorganising force for the left in Croydon.

Of course, there is an argument that this involved errors which could’ve been avoided, and I don’t want to insist that this experience was universal. Still, avoiding these errors would’ve required a political coherence which we certainly did not have in 2017 and we have even less now – and I do not think Croydon can be counted as exceptional in that regard. Again, gaining this coherence isn’t impossible to imagine either – but it’s a coherence which can only be gained through collective struggle.

Hatherley’s hope, encapsulated in the first of his ‘points as to what a London government could plausibly do within its means’ (p.241), is that this struggle should be around housing – that Labour could learn from Paris’ council flats programme and mobilise a popular campaign for rent controls like in Berlin. Alongside ‘us’ (a unity that can’t – shouldn’t – be taken for granted), the ‘old right’ and ‘very woolly and often elderly social democrats who loved Corbyn and yet voted for SKSQC’, Hatherley suggests in our interview that the relatively diminutive ‘new soft left’ are unlikely to ‘fight us on a commitment to decommodifying housing and attacking landlordism’. The as-yet-uncertain response to the decision by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court to overturn Berlin’s rent cap law may well indicate what happens when a local alliance around this commitment is challenged on legal grounds at the national level.

My experience in Croydon suggests that things might be difficult. In fact, if anything was prone to causing fallouts – aside from council selections and antisemitism – it was housing. This was despite – or, rather, because – in many ways the council seemed like it was good on housing. Getting a commitment to ballot on estate regeneration into the 2018 manifesto was an absolute doddle, which should hardly have been surprising in a borough with hardly any large blocks. After Grenfell, it was the first council to begin retrofitting fire sprinklers; it also introduced a landlord licensing scheme and used its powers to override permitted development.19

The problem is that it was also trying to play the market to build housing via Brick by Brick, and engaging in the sort of ‘think-tank wanker overthinking’ and ‘galaxy brain municipalism’ that Hatherley decries in our interview: offering a mix of shared ownership, ‘affordable’ and market rent properties. As Hatherley correctly notes, to say that Labour councils were ever exactly ‘inactive’ on housing is a grave error – though one which many on the left are prone to. Nick Bano’s article in Hatherley’s Tribune makes a good case that the problem in the housing market is not one of supply, and criticises the slogan ‘build more housing’. However, the rhetoric of ‘build more council housing’ slips easily into this – there’s a strong pull within local government to do something, which many of us find difficult to resist, when ‘council housing’ isn’t on the table.20 Moreover, the extent to which the Corbynist coalition – or its activist base, anyway – sees home-ownership as a distant or lost ambition was always overstated, and it’s difficult to know how it could survive the repeated offers of that ‘think-tank wanker overthinking’.

This touches on the other contentious issue which something like Brick by Brick raised for the left – not only the fact that it was playing the market, but that it was building at all, and building in the areas where it was easiest: little patches of green space, council estate infilling, etc. For existing council tenants, and those ‘elderly social democrats’ who are often home-owners, especially, there are controversies introduced by building that can easily fracture an already fragile left. Undoubtedly some concerns would be assuaged without the complication of Brick by Brick’s business practices – but it’s hard to see that sections of the left would’ve responded much more favourably to a block of council flats being built overlooking our labour movement building’s garden. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be building, or that these concerns are always sound, or that politics doesn’t always involve fractures – but there’s a question mark, for me, over whether these are the battles that can make us stronger right now.

For existing council tenants, and those ‘elderly social democrats’ who are often home-owners, especially, there are controversies introduced by building that can easily fracture an already fragile left.

We’re on slightly surer footing with calls for ‘decommodifying housing’ – although perhaps ‘abolish rent’ is more intelligible and less open to manipulation – and the London left has an ample history on which to draw of support for squatting, not to mention the possibilities offered by a stagnant London property market for the ‘right to sell’, which might be one route away from this morass: a focus on making decommodified homes, rather than necessarily building them. This fits with the spirit of some of the best chapters in the Alternative Guide, like Jason Okundaye’s discussion of the repurposing of the Brixton arches that have ‘come to represent the community-mindedness which has enabled migrant communities to bloom in concrete’.

Hatherley’s second point, ‘London needs to stop’ (p.242), sits easier alongside such demands, although he’s sceptical of the chances of a return of the post-Abercrombie shrinking which was so important to the earlier phases of London’s local social democracy. In contrast to his earlier praise for Sadiq Khan as ‘to the left of the second Livingstone’ (p.185) for encouraging council house building, Hatherley is critical of an ‘idly proposed “solution” of densifying the semi-detached streets of the suburbs’. (p.241) And, as he concedes in our interview, ‘actually protecting and renovating the parts of the London welfare state that still exist, while a lot less sexy than new construction, might actually be the best thing we can do for the moment.’ This is a recognition that focusing on constraining the powers of the state – national or local – might have to take precedence over coming up with schemes for managing it: stopping evictions, halting demolitions, freezing rents, etc. Within London, these are demands on which there can be broad support across the left and for which, crucially, holding state power is a helpful adjunct rather than an absolute necessity.

That doesn’t mean the same holds true outside London. Hatherley’s third point argues that the left should combine a demand to ‘govern itself more’ with ‘devolving power and resources to socialists outside of the capital.’ (p.242) Whilst Hatherley briskly dismisses ‘some Maoist movement of Hackney Communists being “sent down” to work in Matalan in Kidderminster’ (p.233), the reality is that something like this is already occurring – indeed, it’s the process that contributed to Labour victories in Croydon, Reading, and Canterbury. The scenario which Hatherley dismisses is easily dismissible, sure, but the pandemic has accelerated the process and I’m certain that every left-winger in London knows somebody who has moved out in search of cheaper rents and often cheaper property prices. As Hatherley said in our interview, ‘the point is to make other cities more urban, through them having more power, better infrastructure, better housing, better jobs, and so forth.’21 It’s here – and not, in my opinion, in London – that something like the Preston model is replicable, building an alliance between existing residents and newcomers, both of them with an interest in improved infrastructure regardless of their housing status. Perhaps, like the socialists who established countryside communes in the 1890s, or who left for the suburbs in the 1930s, or for a myriad of places in the years after 1968, there’s as much strength in knowing when to turn attentions elsewhere, as in identifying when there are opportunities in London to be seized.

Arguably, these elsewheres may be shorter on the social-democratic residues which Hatherley has so well identified in London, the history which it is his fifth point for the left to learn – perhaps that was the problem in Croydon, with its long history of private building nurtured by Conservative councils. I don’t, however, quite agree: there is almost nowhere that such residues cannot be found, nor any hard limit on them being carried within us, as when socialists from across the country brought their own histories and practices to post-war London, or when Caribbean radical traditions crossed the Atlantic. It’s in finding and adding to these residues but also in letting them flow around that we avoid the ‘third London’ being used and reduced, as it so often has been, as an auxiliary to the governmentality of the ‘first’ and the profiteering of the ‘second’.

There’s no magic trick to achieve this – no set of words to be uttered to keep the dangers from our door. Red Metropolis is at its best when, like Morris in 1889, it encourages the left to work with the material in hand – to recognise where it’s not worth fighting, and to seize upon opportunities where it is. Unfortunately, where Hatherley departs from Morris – in the bridges built over eagerly to the ‘new soft left’ and modern-day Morrisons, in the walls thereby erected against their critics on the left – keeps him on well-trodden but (for the time being) dead-end paths. As I’ve tried to draw out from my experiences in Croydon, I do not think that local government in London offers quite the same hopes that Morris saw in the LCC in 1889, or Livingstone saw in the GLC in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least for now. I’ve tried to point to the ways that I think, despite this, socialists might be made. It’s likely to be difficult, messy, and the moments opened only flickering – but I think that in it we can find more hope than in the reassuring promises of building socialists.

Red Metropolis is at its best when, like Morris in 1889, it encourages the left to work with the material in hand – to recognise where it’s not worth fighting, and to seize upon opportunities where it is.

Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London is published by Repeater Books. New Socialist £5 and above subscribers can get a 50% discount on Red Metropolis or another book from Repeater


  1. Part of the confusion stems from the appearance that, in 2019, John McDonnell’s position was the opposite to that he had taken in the 1980s; whereas, under Livingstone, he had represented the firmest, most radical position, ahead of the 2019 election he took up a conciliatory, pro-second referendum (and explicitly pro-Remain) position which attempted to, as we put it in our Bad New Times editorial, ‘build, if not alliances with, then the begrudging tolerance of certain fractions of capital, parts of the state, and the Parliamentary Labour Party.’ The solution to this confusion may look something like this: in both narratives, McDonnell is presented as a relatively free agent, willing to bend and break rules and norms, even to the extent of lying, in pursuit of his socialist goals. His opponents, on the other hand – including Abbott who, via her involvement in the Black Sections and subsequently the Anti-Racist Alliance, has long connections to Livingstone’s camp, associated with the deep-entryist Socialist Action – have tended to seek to promote socialist causes through their commitment to meeting the expectations of their roles in the labour movement, even if that means conceding in individual disputes, as when Abbott gave ground on police or borders. The point is that neither of these positions are the correct ones; abandoning Amilcar Cabral’s instruction to ‘tell no lies’, and attempting ‘one weird trick’ bodges to get a Labour government, McDonnell forgets that our manner of arrival is inextricably linked to our destination. In accepting the constraints of our positions – as, for instance, when Abbott spent much of the New Labour period alongside Michael Portillo on This Week – the tendency broadly associated with Socialist Action forget that capitalist tracks will only take us to capitalist stations. If McDonnell was right to depart from these, and the others correct to demand honesty, the resolution can only come through genuinely transforming the conditions which constrain us – in the case of the 1980s GLC, for example, ensuring an illegal budget through insisting upon an expanded set of needs, rather than through fudges 

  2. Including, it should be noted, by Hatherley, who suggested that I make this comparison. Amongst the Alternative Guide’s assets is its treatment of outer London, to which Hatherley generally pays less attention – after all, it wasn’t even in ‘London’ for much of the period which he considers. 

  3. For example, see Tom Blackburn’s piece on Labour in local government, which Hatherley cites, as well as Tom Gann’s discussion of the GLC’s industrial strategy and the Alternative Models of Ownership Report

  4. Whilst this distinction between ‘industrial’ and ‘propagandistic’ (or ‘cultural’) agendas is fairly typical in narratives of the 1980s GLC, it’s worth noting what is missed; where the latter discussion largely emphasises murals and festivals, there is a tendency to downplay the significance of GLC funding of trade union resource centres, women’s centres, ethnic minority organisations and police monitoring units. For one of the last of those, see my work-in-progress paper on the subject. For a fuller discussion of spatial aspects of the GLC’s work in the 1980s, the work of historian Stephen Brooke is invaluable, and his absence from its endnotes is to the detriment of Red Metropolis

  5. For an interesting argument along these lines, not in London but in new left-controlled Sheffield, see Sarah Kenny’s article on the Leadmill, which argues: ‘The state-private partnership, that was designed to provide investment to stimulate the free market economy, was utilized by the left as a way of diverting government funding into a radical enterprise. In short, there were aspects of Thatcherism that provided a space for its critics to flourish.’ And, further, ‘continued funding of the venue by both local and national government grants created a space in which the politics of Thatcherism could be challenged, and, in many senses, this challenge was enabled by Thatcherite attempts to support the mixed economy and tackle the ‘problem’ of the inner-city. The case of the Leadmill illuminates the ways in which local government manipulated aspects of the Thatcherite project to provide funding for socially beneficial spaces.’ 

  6. F. Hylton and S. Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso: London, 2007), p.31. This reference is important, too, because – in spite of my slightly dismissive remark about Livingstone’s alliance-building with Chávez – the revolutionary experience in both Venezuela and Bolivia provides a rich source of examples of struggles over, and to remake, the urban. Chávez’s geographic imaginary was particularly indebted to the work of Massey, already alluded to above, whose research work typically focused on either London or Latin America. It’s a shame that Hatherley tends to treat Massey’s London work in isolation, and doesn’t engage with the seams of experience which Bolivarianism has provided as a supplement to London’s own sediment. For some discussion of these experiences and other Latin American urbanisms, see Tom Gann’s critical review of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities for the sadly defunct New Left Project, and his supplementary remarks

  7. An illustration of Hatherley’s sense of his audience is that, in noting that the Social Review article was, along with one in the Morning Star, the only review to have appeared at that point, Hatherley tweeted that this indicated ‘the book is reaching who it set out to reach’. 

  8. At its worst, this preference comes through in the book’s unfortunate tendency to adopt the position of a doctor – discussing the ‘sociopathic’ Trump or the ‘psychologically damaged’ wandering its daytime streets in the first few pages – searching for means of ameliorating London’s sickness. 

  9. Incidentally, one of the most contentious issues in Croydon local politics in the last few years – the most commonly cited cause of the defeat of a left-wing council candidate in the 2018 elections – was the struggle between Transport for London and the Labour-held council over the years-long closure of the bridges on Blackhorse Lane

  10. I am indebted to the one-time London mayoral candidate and codpiece-wearing fraudster Wolfgang Moneypenny for the slogan which captures something like what I’d regard as a revolutionary politics of place: ‘let us come together to burn bridges’. For a critical discussion of coalition-building, see Williams’ ‘Socialists and Coalitionists’ and the discussion of it and its contemporary relevance by Tom Gann. 

  11. In his responses to our interview questions, Hatherley describes this argument – and this trolling – as an attempt at ‘bending the stick’. The stick-bending metaphor is indebted to Lenin and his 1903 hope that the RSDLP would ‘always vigorously straighten out a stick that has been bent by opportunism of any kind, and that our stick will always, therefore, be the straightest and fittest for action.’ As Lars T. Lih has noted, this has often been interpreted by those within the Trotskyist tradition as an argument that Lenin alternated between contradictory positions, sometimes taking a position ‘too far’ so as to correct for another mistaken one; Lih, on the other hand, argues that it’s also possible to read Lenin’s comment as an argument that ‘bending the stick’ refers to a process of straightening out, rather than over-correcting, and hence to assume that Lenin did not regard his own statements as contradictory. Of course, that does not mean that sometimes one doesn’t bend a stick too far – but setting out with the intention of doing so, in my opinion, is not wholly honest. See, for this discussion, L.T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in context (Boston: Brill, 2006), pp.26-27. 

  12. It’s also notable that, whilst Hatherley credits Morrison and the LCC with providing ‘healthcare free at the point of use over a decade before the NHS (p.63), he was – as Hatherley also notes – opposed to nationalisation (p.248) and in favour of local control of hospitals. That is the version of the NHS which had been put forward by the Conservative MP for Croydon North, Henry Willink, in 1944. 

  13. In our interview, Hatherley complains of the new left ‘treating housing itself as if it’s activism, as something elective, something that needs training and lots of time.’ Hatherley argues that this conflicts with his own view of housing as a right: it’s ‘one of the several paths that lead from the GLC to New Labour – rights balanced by responsibilities.’ Labour right-wingers hardly needed Livingstone’s help to adopt a view of rights balanced by responsibilities – it’s been a critical part of the social-democratic imaginary for a very long time. It’s also been a part of socialist utopian visions from News from Nowhere to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, with its insistence on the responsibilities of freedom. Indeed, the idea that rights come with strings attached has long been recognised by Marxists, and it’s a problem inherent to the discourse of rights – not a latter-day addition to them which Hatherley can easily escape by declaring ‘a right is a right is a right.’ 

  14. It is worth reading, alongside Robertson’s piece, Pao-Yu Ching’s From Victory to Defeat, which discusses the struggles within and between the state sector and the communes in Maoist China – a real contradiction which could not be simply dispensed with, without disposing of the socialist project as such. 

  15. To be clear, this does not mean that there is not a specialist knowledge involved with architecture, or that the process of overcoming this division of labour should be smooth or easy, or be possible without the active involvement of those who currently possess that specialist knowledge. There is also a specialist knowledge involved with cooking or talking or coordinating, but there is a difference between saying that people have differing knowledges of cooking or talking or coordinating or architecture, and designating some people ‘cooks’ or ‘talkers’ or ‘coordinators’ or ‘architects’ and leaving it at that. This is what Mao referred to as experts becoming red, reds becoming expert

  16. See, for instance, Lenin’s letter immediately prior to the October revolution, or Stuart Hall’s excellent ‘For a Marxism without Guarantees’. 

  17. It would be remiss not to mention, as Private Eye has now reported, that Brick by Brick hired Labour Party general secretary David Evans’ Croydon-based The Campaign Company to run its public consultations. 

  18. Although not intended for circulation – including to myself as a major contributor to the inquiry, since I did not receive a copy – the report can be found relatively easily online. As the report recommended, and as was right, I’ve apologised to Jose Joseph for my part in this. 

  19. Not that landlord licensing is entirely uncontroversial, as previously mentioned in New Socialist. Given my own participation in the same discussion group mentioned in that article, I felt that the promising thing about landlord licensing in Croydon was the opportunity presented to housing activists to contact unorganised tenants or target large landlords, rather than the direct impact on housing conditions per se. 

  20. Another example of the problems with ‘build council housing’ is indicated by the composite housing motion that was part of Momentum’s Policy Primary. Some of the most important demands of the motion, demands which could be acted upon by activists without wholly waiting for successful local or national elections, have very little to do with building but a lot to do with making: requisitioning empty homes and repealing anti-squatting legislation. Yet the title of the motion, ‘Build council housing and end homelessness’, scarcely acknowledges these demands; it’s very easy for Momentum activists to thereby pat themselves on the back and celebrate a pledge to build council homes, and forget the rest of the motion. And what about, as in Croydon, when the council can point to Right to Buy – not to be abolished except by a national government, as per the motion – and say that they’re building council houses in all but name, to get around the legislation? Motions like this, which emphasise building, set up activists poorly to confront councils like Croydon. 

  21. A few smaller points on this. The first is that, whilst Hatherley says he wouldn’t want to make ‘London less urban’, it strikes me that making London smaller in the ways spoken about would certainly involve making it less _sub_urban – again, I think urbanism-suburbanism is something worth thinking through. Secondly, Hatherley follows up on his point in the interview by arguing ‘a shift from London to Hastings or Margate (…) won’t actually change the economic geography of the UK all that much.’ Obviously, if the shift is exclusively one of housing then I think this is right – but making a place ‘more urban’ is not simply a matter of building houses but of demands for infrastructure, industry, etc. I don’t think it follows that there’s something about Sheffield or Southampton that makes them different from Margate and Hastings in this regard, and working to make Margate or Hastings ‘more urban’ could potentially be easier than avoiding the suburbanisation of Sheffield or Southampton. 


Author:

Daniel Frost (@d_j_frost)

Dan is a UCU member, and studying towards a PhD in the history of left-wing activism in Croydon at the University of Reading.