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What if this is the beginning, not the end? An interview with Owen Hatherley.

ECOLOGIES | Books  }

Tom Gann, Owen Hatherley / October 16, 2021
The left's most prolific author on Red Metropolis, London's municipal socialism, class recomposition and its political effects, and the influence of William Morris. 8368 words / 34 min read

Photo: Rowley Way, Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, Camden, London by Oxyman all photos in the interview Owen Hatherley.


In the wake of the election Owen Hatherley attempted to write his way out of “numb horror” by writing a history of municipal socialism in London, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, published by Repeater Books. We interviewed him about the book by email in early 2021. Since this interview, and such is Owen’s admirable productivity, Verso have published the excellent essay collection Clean Living under Difficult Circumstances.

TGTo start off with, I’d like to say how much I enjoyed Red Metropolis and how much I learnt from it. The attempt to find alternatives and possibilities, is incredibly valuable in the current situation. I also think the seriousness of it, the impatience with certain sorts of glibness, including glibness on the left - I’m thinking of the impatience with merely resorting to “labourism” to explain the top-down nature of Herbert Morrison’s urban reforms - is incredibly valuable. I also appreciated the way in which contingency, including the unexpected effects of class and other political struggle, is thought through together with, unlike most other accounts, whether relatively apolitical, or from the right, or the (new) left, such a commitment to planning. The attention played to parts of the history of London politics that the contemporary left often ignores (so almost everything that isn’t the ‘80s GLC or perhaps Poplarism) is also great, and perhaps, above all, given there is such a determined effort by those with power to forget it, the role played by Grenfell and your anger at what happened feels analytically and morally vital.

Can I ask first a bit more about your motivations for writing Red Metropolis? You say, discussing our election defeat that “writing this book was in many ways an attempt to write my way out of that feeling of numb horror”, why did you feel this was the way to try to get out of that horror?

OHOne answer is ‘make myself feel better by concentrating on the place where the Corbyn programme was by far the most popular (with the exception of Liverpool) and argue that therefore local/devolved government in the capital should be the place to try to actually carry out some of that programme’. This came out of a reading, while on holiday in the social democratic utopia that is the Northern Islands in summer 2019, of Neal Ascherson’s book about Scotland, Stone Voices. He describes how the turn to the right across England in 1979 (and unlike 2019, the 1983 disaster, really was across England, quite without the city/town, millennial/boomer divide we see now) coincided with a counter-movement in Scotland, where it actually shifted further and further to the left and certainly further towards the Labour party throughout the Thatcher era – and he roots Scottish devolution and the famous Scottish constitutional convention that led to it in that shift. So, after the election disaster that December I thought ‘well, this is clearly what is happening in London – England as a whole is going sharply one way, London and Liverpool and Bristol, and to a slightly lesser extent Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Leicester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bradford, are all going in the complete other direction’. The question then was: what if the clear shift away from most of the rest of England that you could see in London’s vote in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019 could have a similar long-term effect? Maybe it was an attempt to cheer up both myself and more generally other depressed and demoralised urban socialists with this thought – what if this is actually not the end of something but the beginning of something – just like Scotland’s dissidence in the 1980s was the beginning of something?

Maybe it was an attempt to cheer up both myself and more generally other depressed and demoralised urban socialists with this thought – what if this is actually not the end of something but the beginning of something?

The essay the book grew out of was commissioned in summer 2019 by New Left Review for their ‘Metropolitan Disorders’ series of city essays – the editors commissioned it on the basis of a Guardian piece I’d written about Ken Livingstone. Obviously am a long-standing NLR subscriber and of the essay series in question, my favourites were those that focused on the creation of new cities, rather than those that were critiques of cities. My guide here was probably Alexander Clapp’s brilliant account of modern Athens. I very much planned it very much as a similar account of the emergence a modern city out of an ancient one – in this case, of London emerging from the LCC in the 1890s onwards as a centre of reformist social planning, as an alternative to the hoary and dated idea of London being just capital (‘the City’) and the central state (‘Westminster’), interrupted briefly by a bad thing called ‘planning’. The possibly unwise thought experiment by way of analogy with Scotland was then yoked to that earlier project after the election, and that became the essay ‘The Government of London’ that the NLR published in spring 2020. The book is that essay plus a lot of photographs, plus much more material on the boroughs, whereas the NLR essay had focused solely on the all-London institutions such as the Metropolitan Board of Works, the LCC, the GLC and the GLA; along with that came some of my impressions of the London labour left since 2015.

The Millbank Estate

The ‘numb horror’ was based on that shock that we all felt of ‘my god, people fucking hate us and our ideas, we all stomped around the country in the pissing rain and cold to convince people and yet they fucking hate us and voted for obvious conmen because they fucking hate us so much’. Then I realised, looking coldly at the results, that actually the majority of people in London don’t fucking hate us at all – in fact, the majority of people in London fucking hate the Tories.

TGIn the preface you summarise your argument as “London can be, and has been, a city governed in the interests of the majority of its people”, but does the has been necessarily show the “can”? What if politically the book’s too late? I wonder if your, excellent, relatively autonomous political history of London (here perhaps is your “Mandarin Marxism”) obscures shifts in conditions that make, at the very least, that shift from has been to can be harder? There are a host of suggestive comparisons of things that were done in the past and would meet the needs of the present for the reader to pick up on but the means of getting to a position to enact those ideas often seems presumed rather than demonstrated.

OHThis is the key question about the use of any political writing I’ve done, really. There was a standard argument in the New Labour years, which I remember very very well, which held even quite mild social democratic reforms in cities to be utopian and extravagant. To say that eg. building a council housing estate as part of the Olympic building programme rather than demolishing one could be possible would get you ridiculed. So to go ‘you know, your forefathers in the Labour right did this all the bloody time’ was a rhetorical move. Does that mean they can actually do it themselves, after Thatcher’s reforms to the planning system? I’d say it’s much harder, but it isn’t impossible, and with the likes of Goldsmith Street in Norwich we have started to see these sorts of places being built again.

I am not an expert in housing and planning law, I’m a journalist who has a very very rough knowledge of them, so it’s entirely possible there’s an element of truth when a councillor says ‘we just can’t’. If, say, Khan were to roll out the full 1981 GLC programme tomorrow, not that I think he would even want that, there would be pandaemonium – he doesn’t have the budget, and he doesn’t have the powers to do it without a huge confrontation that would be much more like Liverpool or Poplar. However, I do think there are significantly more powers and significantly more room for creativity than most councils and councillors seem to make out – and Preston’s situation, with its solutions partly improvised and partly taken from exemplars elsewhere, suggests it is possible to do a lot more than just sit there and take it. So, on housing, let’s say, there is obviously space for building and preserving council housing and – as we’ll come back to later – even a lot of quite soft or centrist councils now accept this, after two decades in which they treated it like an embarassing remnant to be obliterated. Of course mostly they’re just building council housing to replace all the council housing they demolished, and they’re committed to think-tank wanker overthinking where they have to provide various ‘products’ in housing – one part shared ownership! One part ‘affordable’! One part market rent! One part social rent! - which actually tend to exacerbate the problem by increasing the amounts landlords can charge.

I do think there are significantly more powers and room for creativity than most councils and councillors seem to make out – and Preston’s situation suggests it is possible to do a lot more than just sit there and take it.

There is a straightforward route which I think I assume in the book, and I think those of us on the Corbynite left who were interested in local government as such (a much smaller group than one might have hoped) imagined it as follows. Win leadership of CLP (this happened a lot!); win selections for left councillors (this happened a bit less often), take over council (this happened a handful of times/places), enact left policies (this happened in maybe three or four places, with some successes of various kinds in Preston, Salford, Haringey, North Ayrshire).1 We can now expect a lot more hostility from the leadership to this, but the balance of forces in CLPs has not actually changed significantly, to my knowledge, so I would not rule it out.

All that said, in a lot of cases – especially in big cities like London and Manchester – the left has missed a trick by conceptualising right-wing or centrist councils in terms of ‘inaction’ or laziness. Actually something like Manchester City Council now or Southwark Council in the Peter John era was profoundly active, and conceived of themselves very much as ‘entrepeneurial states’ if not quite in Mazzucato’s sense. They intervened to change the character of the places they governed, to reduce the weight of one class and increase that of another, to destroy council housing and replace it with market housing and a sliver of ‘affordable’ or charitable housing, and to create new streams of revenue, new job markets, and to police particular communities more harshly and encourage others to settle and expand. You can also see a certain galaxy brain municipalism in the way that councils have tried to actually return to some social democratic goals in housing by cross-funding them from becoming developers and/or playing the market themselves. In Croydon this 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.

New Towers being built in Elephant and Castle

So maybe doing the sort of large-scale planning and building the LCC and GLC did would stretch current laws and would take enormous struggle, whereas when it was done in the recent past – not initially, but by the 60s – it was just ordinary consensus politics, shared with the Tories and Liberals. I strongly suspect that because of that difficulty, 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. Stressing ‘for the moment’.

TGIt feels that a lot of the “can” argument relies on one of the most useful threads running through the book from the Morris epigraph to Chapter One arguing for the potential usefulness of socialist involvement in the County Councils of the “great towns” whilst abstaining from Parliament, to the account of the different political parties of the LCC until the 1920s, to Poplarism and the arguments for law breaking, to the GLC of the 1980s, to Ken Livingstone’s running (and winning) as an Independent that London politics often is not fully determined by Westminster politics both in its political co-ordinates and in the left in power’s sometime willingness to imagine or not fully accede to the limits of the law and constitutionalism. I’m thinking here too of Hilary Wainwright’s argument that “the power of the state was less heavily present in the council chamber.”2 But does this still hold, at least in London? The vast majority of Labour councillors seem to as much (sometimes even more) both limited by the and its agents and legal frameworks have shifted in such a way as to support that. Equally, political positions in local government seem significantly determined by national factional divisions. Perhaps outside London, and this might explain why Preston is not very generalisable, constituted by capital’s lack of interest, there might be more space that isn’t determined by the state, and more chance to ally with a soft left, but I’m not sure this holds now for London where the soft left is perhaps more determined by national factionalism.

OHI feel I’ve answered some of this above. There was a shift already in the Ed Miliband years against landlordism and for council housing – nowhere near as profound a shift as there needed to be given the scale of the crisis, with a lot of woolly rhetoric clouding it, but it was there, and a lot of quite objectionable councils have positions on both landlords and on municipal housing that are well to the left of the New Labour era – this is one of the very few places we’ve actually managed to change the party’s common sense a little bit. I genuinely don’t see why the soft left wouldn’t be supportive of a broad municipal socialist programme, and when there were battles such as Haringey they were generally on board. Many will piss and moan about the people likely to lead such a change, of course, but I still think this is one of the few real points of agreement between us and the ‘new soft left’. Maybe this is wrong – I am less a veteran of the party’s bloody battles than you guys are, and maybe the book’s relative optimism comes frorm that distance.

As to ‘the limits of the law and constitutionalism’, I’d take them separately. On the constitution, the book is explicitly in a dialogue with something like Alex Niven’s New Model Island – it assumes a radically different republican constitution, much closer to the Federal Republic of Germany, with autonomous provinces and free cities (how little we would settle for…) On the limits of the law: I don’t know, because nobody has actually tried, whether a municipal socialist agenda in the capital would be crushed in the courts or not. I think it is worth trying to find out, because the status quo is intolerable.

TGFrom the perspective of a lot of the contemporary left (including, probably parts of an implicit New Socialist line), the very sympathetic treatment of Morrison is extremely valuable and a useful corrective to certain forms of lazy anti-statism. The stress on the practical, even pedagogical, emphasis of Morrison in particular, in terms of proving Labour could govern effectively (and this helps explain the harm to Labour’s General Election prospects numerous Labour Councils did), I think is crucial. But, doesn’t the defence become a little one-sided? As much as anything else, didn’t Morrison make good on some of the alternative purposes and challenges of Poplarism and by cutting off the capacity of that challenge in proximity to Labour cut off the chances of going further?

OHThe prominence of Morrison is partly a sort of double-troll – a trolling of the Labour left’s quite boring account of its own history, which ignores the phemomenal success of the LCC as much as it ignores the Livingstone-era GLC, and a trolling of the Labour right by pointing out that their effective founder was vastly to the left of their current platform. But aside from the troll, the point of it was to make clear why the Labour right was so successful in London – because it did things, it proved itself. Call it clientelism if you want, as I’m sure many Marxists did, but it made concrete efforts on a huge scale to introduce a social democracy in one city that provided one of the major models for the policies of the Attlee government, both in terms of housing policy and in terms of what a nationalised company would actually be. But if you were one of the Socialist League members around at the time – the real equivalent then of TWT/Momentum/etc – it probably felt much like it feels with SKSQC and David Evans now, with enormous expulsions of socialists and a suffocating bureaucratic culture, and that’s why Morrison’s name quickly became mud on the left. But let’s be real, his actual programme, which he carried out, was to the left of Corbyn’s, and people like the Salters were allowed to carry out their previously fringe left ideas under his watch.

Let’s be real, Morrison's actual programme, which he carried out, was to the left of Corbyn’s.

TGAs a partisan of something like, as you put it, 1981-86 GLC as “social democratic Paris Commune” position, I found your critique made me rethink at the very least certain emphases. The stress on the indifference to council housing and Livingstone’s extremely shabby treatment of Neave Brown is entirely persuasive and I think the attention to the limits of major parts of GLC cultural policy and the drawing on the Paul Gilroy critique in There Ain’t No Black… is important. I wonder though if some of your treatment of People’s Plans is entirely fair. The critique of the antiurbanist fear of crime and of conditionality in access to good housing, I think holds but I’m not sure this necessarily condemns a stress on “participation in all things”. Surely some of the point of popular participation is to build and develop the necessary pressure and popular consent that makes development determined by non-capitalist priorities possible (and I think John McDonnell also made a version of this point in one of the excellent series of discussions of Red Metropolis)? It doesn’t have to be woolly “principled” position, it can be a hard-headed practical one, rooted in a sense of class recomposition and ideological effects that reduced popular consent for top-down forms of planning (social democracy in London by the 1980s required radical and improvised means in a way that it didn’t in Morrision’s day). I wonder here if the relative autonomy of political history misses some of these shifts and their political effects? This then links more strongly to what you emphasis in the wider popular planning project and the GLC industrial strategy and then in McDonnell as shadow chancellor of, in conditions of working class weakness, “legislating the class struggle back into existence” - the effects of the process are meant to be part of the point as well as the provision of housing - Coin Street may well not have had these effects, but I don’t think that condemns the “participation in all things” tendency as strongly as you seem to be arguing.

OHI suppose this is the Trotskyist in me resurfacing but I am suspicious of communitarianism, and I do broadly think that expertise, for instance in town planning, is a good thing and not a bad one; precisely what interests me about the McDonnell programme both in the 1980s and in the 2010s was its attempt to balance a genuine respect for expertise (the civil service, even) with the urgent need to bring it into dialogue and alliance with grassroots democracy and accountability. As you imply above, I obviously think that at times the New Left of the 70s/80s in its anti-modernism profoundly misjudged that balance, and attacked some of the most scrupulous, honest and talented experts we’ve ever had, Neave Brown obviously being the major example there. The fact that New Left people couldn’t see the difference between what he was doing at Alexandra Road and Highgate New Town and your Ronan Points and such is a real indictment, as is the treatment of Ted Hollamby in Lambeth. And that’s a point with contemporary relevance, too. I want us to be able to talk to architects, on the left – the architects and planners involved with something like Public Practice, which I personally find too close to developers as it currently exists, are people that we should have on our side, and I do actually think they as architects who think about this every hour of the day would have better ideas about housing than just randomly asking someone who has never given it much thought what they want and doing it. The point is to have the dialogue.

The fact that New Left people couldn’t see the difference between what Naeve Brown was doing at Alexandra Road and Highgate New Town and your Ronan Points and such is a real indictment.

So for me there’s three possibilities here – a) straight-up top-down municipal planning, which I have sympathy for but the democratic deficit there was real and bad; then there’s b) the ‘give the people what they want’ stuff where Militant in Liverpool in the 80s built Barratt Homes For The Proletariat, which I think is really sad, not because they’re houses with gardens but because they’re introverted cul-de-sacs behind perimeter walls, that are blocked off from the rest of the city – they’re nice to live in perhaps but no fun at all to walk around, and I’m one of the people who thinks that matters; and c) a third way, if you will, which Ralph Erskine took at Byker or Walter Segal at Lewisham, where a real alliance and dialogue and creative process happened between the architect and the resident.

Barratt Homes For the Proletariat, Liverpool

Linked to this is a simple question of time. We all know that one of the reasons why activism is often disproportionately middle class or academic isn’t just about knowledge or cliques or what have you, it’s also often about time. I think Coin Street is wonderful and I support the building of one, many, Coin Streets, etc, but what if you genuinely don’t have the time or the inclination to ‘manage’ your own housing, and want to just not have to worry about the roof over your head? If you don’t have time for the meetings or training sessions? It’s sort of treating housing itself as if it’s activism, as something elective, something that needs training and lots of time. But if you think (as I do) housing is a right and not something you need to earn, then this is a problem. It is also one of the several paths that lead from the GLC to New Labour – rights balanced by responsibilities. Fuck that – a right is a right is a right.

With Coin Street, treating housing itself as if it’s activism is is also one of the several paths that lead from the GLC to New Labour – rights balanced by responsibilities. Fuck that – a right is a right is a right.

TGA really suggestive claim, and it feels like its both an implicit and structuring argument, part of Red Metropolis, that you make is that residues (and I think this conceptualising of them as, presumably following Raymond Williams as residual3 is very useful, not least because the residual has its specific geographies against yet within a national culture or politics) of socialist administrations and social movements and that could be in “municipal antiracism” or in, in a broad sense, a local welfare state or decent public transport - here unlike in the rest of the country, proving that public provision or at least control works, explain “London’s apparent political anomalousness”. This appealed a lot as a correction to both a kind of economism - though later in the book you seem to broadly accept that the explanation lies in London being “the most proletarian city in the country” and, crucially, the grim “metropolitan elite” discourse. I wonder if you could say a bit more about how these residues might shape consciousness in London.

OHI think you’ve really answered your own question there! But to be clear, I do think that sometimes the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited,4 as someone once said. London’s publicly-owned and integrated and well-designed transport, its enormous quantity of still-municipal housing and its incomplete but still enduring project of municipal antiracism lies behind a lot of why people want to live here, why people like living here, and why many more people here seem to believe that, to use the phrase, that we can in fact have nice things. They also coexist with the horrors of the job market, landlordism, rough sleeping, the Met, the gross gap between rich and poor and so on, which work against those residues; but really the claim is about possibility. It is much harder here to claim that positive change is impossible because positive changes have happened here in the last few decades (among many many negative ones). This leads in my view to a much less depressive, defeated politics than is the norm in England.

TGFor all the suggestive implications of the “residue” argument, at the end of the book you seem to largely go for an economistic explanation of London’s being a left-wing city. This is underpinned by your argument that “on a classical definition, of people who have to sell their labour power to survive, and do not own property, London is the most proletarian city in the country”. I think, firstly, there is a collapse here of “proletarian” and “working class” and it ends up having some harmful effects on the argument. As you know, for example in the controversial tenants’ organising piece, this is an increasingly a hobbyhorse of mine. It’s obviously necessary to resist the dominant explanation, especially, as you say, it would be obscene to talk about “metropolitan elite” in the context of Grenfell and “Windrush” but I wonder if the stick is bent too far. Class is also determined by prospects, proximity to the state, the social wage, distinctions between intellectual and manual labour and with it kinds of control (etc) and here one would have a very different picture of London’s class basis. Doesn’t discounting them in the context of London end up making the question of a class based solidarity with other parts of the country too easy (and it’s telling, I think that when Marx is analysing specific social formations, for example in the texts on France that there’s a great profusion of classes and class fractions)- not least because Londoners as well as being harmed by aspects of London’s centrality, particularly in terms of rents, also benefit from it and in ways that are not “merely cultural”?

OHYou’re absolutely right that - as with the Morrison chapter – I was bending the stick to produce what I hoped would be certain effects, but I’ll try and outline as seriously as I can what I think about this (on London’s ‘benefits’ I think they’re absolutely real and I’ve outlined some of them above, and I do invite any Londoner who has ever complained about TfL to try getting from one end of Leeds or Birmingham or Bristol to the other on public transport).

We are obviously undergoing a profound recomposition of class in this country – as in countries with similar post-industrial, heavily financialised economies, such as the US – which is producing some weird phenomena which we haven’t quite managed to understand properly. That process is still happening and hasn’t really shaken itself out yet – there’s a flux which is going to settle down at some point but hasn’t so far. The components of this are various and it involves people going both up and down the ‘ladder’. Obviously the Thatcherite settlement had real long-term effects on the sections of the old industrial/manual working class that it successfully appealed to, particularly in outer London and the Midlands – the Tory party of that era were not stupid, they intended to embourgeoisify a section of the working class through Right to Buy and the encouragement of spivvy businesses, and they did; and when that happened the beneficiaries didn’t see any particular need to drop their accents or their cultural baggage; if anything these would be emphasised as part of the story of how you made it. This took longer to reach the North but it obviously has done so. It doesn’t make people rich or even particularly affluent but it makes them comfortable and secure. I was very struck by the statistic that the biggest Leave vote in the referendum by housing tenure was a) council tenantswho obviously given the means testing of access to council housing are overwhelmingly working class; and b) people who had paid off their mortgage, who are equally obviously overwhelmingly middle class. What do these two have in common? Security in their housing.

On the other hand, a lot of previously prestigious and clearly middle class professions – teaching and lecturing are obvious examples among many (I know a lot of people who work in Universities, and only one or two of them have full-time contracts, let alone the once wholly normal trinity of sick pay, holiday pay and pensions, and the idea that there’s a ladder that reaches to these is often simply not the case) – have been significantly casualised, with wages and conditions close to what would once have been considered working class; and obviously that’s all the more the case with workplaces such as call centres, ubiquitous everywhere, and service jobs, which are ubiquitous in London. This is also linked to the combined massive expansion and massive marketisation of higher education under New Labour and then the Coalition, which means a degree clearly doesn’t mean what it did, for better or worse. Then there’s the role of pensions, both in terms of the triple-lock and in the private pensions that are incredibly commonplace. So clearly the old sixties ABCDE categories have no way of explaining this, and venerable Marxists using them should be mocked. But neither, in my view, does a head/hand distinction explain it; neither really does the question of autonomy/control over one’s work. Is a craft beer brewer or someone waiting tables a manual worker? Yes, strictly speaking. Are a call centre worker and Nick Cohen both doing ‘head work’? Yes. Is a Deliveroo worker or a casualised lecturer truly autonomous, truly able to work when they like? Not really, as they have to work a certain number of hours or they can’t pay the rent. What do we do with this? Fuck knows. I don’t think it explains anything much, certainly not like it did before deindustrialisation. Clearly a ‘precarious’ worker who is driving a cab or wiping a floor or doing telesales, and one who is writing lectures on Bourdieu, reviewing records or editing the Tribune culture section are not doing the same kind of work (how many are doing both, I wonder?). But how different is that from the old skilled/unskilled distinction within the old industrial working class?

So London is a city where a lot of the landlords might be people from the old working class quarters of London who have moved to Kent and Essex, and they might be letting their flats to the sons and daughters of professionals working in the cultural or service industries, and I don’t think it’s clear who is really working class here, in this relation. The landlord obviously isn’t, but is the tenant? It depends. Do they have access to the bank of mummy and daddy (because of course the main beneficiaries of Thatcherism among the wider population were people who bought urban property in the 1980-1990s, whatever job they did)? Do they have a career path that is clearly one towards stability and comfort and advancement, in the few professions where that still exists, such as law or finance? If so, then they’re surely middle class. But if they don’t have access to those things, I don’t think they really are meaningfully middle class, no.

So there’s this chaos and flux where various demonstably untrue statements are made all the time – the true working class is pensioners in the imaginary “Red Wall” is one; the artist nominated for the Turner Prize and her cleaner both being ‘working class’ because both of them rent, is another. So in amongst all this mess one quite limited distinction one can make is around property, where home ownership/renting is a very clear divide with very clear effects on voting and on consciousness and one where we can obviously mobilise around a programme against landlordism and in favour of the decommodification of housing. I am strongly committed to that and I think it will be the decisive struggle over the next decade. But you’re quite right that this can, if taken too far in a certain direction, lead to the flattening out of very real contradictions. Possibly I take a bit of a Zhou En-Lai ‘it’s too soon to tell’ line about class recomposition.

Home ownership/renting is a very clear divide with very clear effects on voting and on consciousness and one where we can obviously mobilise around a programme against landlordism and in favour of the decommodification of housing.

TGI wonder too if this thinking of class also underpins some of the optimism about alliances? If the coherence of the working class as a working class is relatively given in London then an alliance becomes an alliance of given and articulated political positions, but at the same time the politics that stem from deep disorganisation and lack of the popular capacity to exert pressure, the kind of politics that might limit the possibility of a genuine alliance locally with the soft left. This is in part, surely, why programmes that should appeal to the soft left whether in local government or of a softened version of those offered by Alex Niven, given their stated commitments, will, in practice, be resisted by them? The New Left coalition building, by contrast, was a coalition that didn’t conceptualise the working class so widely and looked to build a coalition of the popular classes, with a particular stress on empowering and developing a black petty bourgeoisie both small business owners and more senior local government workers. This sort of coalition building (and the theory of class that underpins it) is longer term but potentially much more dynamic than a stitching together of already articulated political positions in which it’s hard to see how the left wouldn’t be subordinate.

OHAgain I’ve answered some of this above on class, so I will limit my answer here to alliances. We have an alliance, in London and in other big cities, which demonstrably supported the Corbyn programme. It consists of the declasse groups described above – students and ex-students, often people who moved to the big city from elsewhere – along with the remants here of the unionised working class, particularly though not exclusively working class people of colour. It’s a bit like the GLC coalition but with with much less of a role for the senior local government workers; actually that stratum there, that bought houses at the right time, was usually among our bitterest opponents. I don’t really mind if that coalition is called ‘popular classes’ or ‘proletarian’ (given it is very much ‘the people who don’t own property’), probably the former is as you say less conceptually risky and also, importantly, less jargonistic. The current leadership feels hell-bent on alienating both parts of the coalition in any case. The student/ex-student part of that alliance pre-2015 often voted Liberal, Green or, in some cases, for Boris Johnson as mayor, so its political commitment to Labour is extremely fragile and recent. Similarly, as Jason Okundaye has written, the black support base has been taken enormously for granted. So there’s a real urban alliance but nobody seems to have noticed it, care much about it or be doing anything to strengthen it, as mostly white CLP meetings in inner London boroughs with black majorities and the fate of Dawn Butler in the leadership all make pretty clear. Labour didn’t win an election on the basis of that coalition, but whether they can win one without it, well…

I don’t know how this connects with the alliances within the Labour Party and here I defer to you. I don’t know what the ‘new soft left’ represents at a class level if anything much; in the party they’re a much smaller group than either a) us, b) the old right, or c) the largest group, which is very woolly and often elderly social democrats who loved Corbyn and yet voted for SKSQC, come out to canvass and are otherwise members purely on paper. I suspect the self-identified soft left would fight us tooth and nail on any real commitment to anti-imperialism; whether they’d fight us on a commitment to decommodifying housing and attacking landlordism I doubt – actually they seem well to the left of yr Thangam Debbonaires and John Healeys on this. But, I may simply be naive and inexperienced here.

TGSomething that felt striking especially in the context to certainly the image of your work, and I think to some extent the reality of it, is your appreciation of an Arts and Crafts tradition and of William Morris (and then there’s your very good introduction to the Verso, How I Became a Socialist). How much is this a shift in your attitudes and aesthetic-political commitments? And what lies behind it? Is it just mostly that the fusion of Arts and Crafts and continental modernism was “our” Bauhaus and De Stijl, or is their something more than that? I’m wondering here about Morris as a figure, perhaps the figure of a politics of production, which would also include high quality housing produced by in-housed Works Departments, as you say, Grenfell shows the necessity of “the demand, central to municipal socialism in London…of democratic public control of construction” and the GLC London Industrial Strategy whereby alienated, exploited production is held to lead to ugly, shoddy, dangerous products as well as horrendous ecological consequences. I was looking at the London Industrial Strategy, and it’s notable that the link is made explicitly between socially useful production rather than militarised market production, the perspective of the worker, who wants “some control over how the job is done, with the use of skill to produce useful products, with a working life that enhances rather than degrades”5 and Morris’s “useful work rather than useless toil.”

William Morris's Red House

OHI don’t know if it’s a shift. I have always had as my main emphasis the modernist side of the housing and design that came out of or aligned with the labour movement, because by the 90s it had been totally forgotten as part of the left’s own history (though not of design history). There was a huge amount of emphasis on, say, union banners and William Morris and a sort of folksy Victorian aesthetics that you’d find if you ever went down to the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival (along, in fairness, with a really rank SWP banner aesthetic derived at a few removes from David King’s tributes to Rodchenko) and given the left can also be credited with, say, Park Hill or the Apollo Pavilion or the Royal Festival Hall, with really ambitious, genuinely world-transforming stuff – a lot of my first couple of books came in part out of a frustration that we weren’t claiming the history where we built stuff, but only the parts of our history where we ‘resisted’ or bore witness or were defeated gloriously. But I’ve never been hostile to Arts and Crafts itself, and not at all to Morris himself, though clearly his ‘Nowhere’ is not my utopia (hence the bit in my introduction to the Verso Morris anthology about it not having ‘room for perverts’). In design history terms I’m very much one of those who still think Nikolaus Pevsner’s thesis in Pioneers of Modern Design, that there is a direct line from Morris to the Bauhaus6, is correct, and that the same impulse is at work of trying to erase the divide between art and everyday life, and in that sense the line between an Arts and Crafts early LCC project like the Boundary Estate and a Brutalist Southwark Council one like Dawson Heights sixty years later is a completely straight one. It’s not at all accidental that Ted Hollamby combined being Lambeth’s (Communist) borough architect with restoring Morris’ Red House; someone like Hollamby saw Morris as the forerunner.

Dawson's Heights

I think where the divide happens is about the machine aesthetic. Even the quite shaggy, brick-and-wood-and-concrete modernism of Hollamby has a lot more room for the machine aesthetic than Morris did – and also a lot more room than the post-1968 New Left did. That’s where your point about labour comes in – the Bauhaus aesthetic is not about reducing quality – and the Camden or Lambeth schemes the New Left opposed were of a level of quality well beyond that of ‘luxury’ housing today – but it did accept a certain deskilling, accepted the dying out of craft traditions. The New Left was quite nostalgic for all that, and generally considered right angles to be a bit totalitarian. But they failed completely to revive any craftsmanship in housing or architecture – actually 1980s housing built by the New Left tends to be show a much poorer quality of expression and materials than that of the 1970s modernists. That’s because it went alongside that dreadful pop-semiotics that Postmodernism in architecture brought about, where ‘does it look like “a house”?’ was by far the most important question about a house. But control and aesthetics don’t necessarily run together here – the Walter Segal houses in Lewisham are absolutely modernist and their builders-residents had absolute control. So they’re not mutually exclusive questions.

The Bauhaus aesthetic is not about reducing quality but it did accept a certain deskilling and the dying out of craft traditions. The New Left was nostalgic for all that but they failed to revive any craftsmanship in architecture.

Last point on this is that in the last few years, where I’ve beenn able to do a certain amount of advocacy about particular policies on housing and planning – for you and for Tribune and in one especially bizarre moment for Labour List – I’ve tried to keep the aesthetics fairly separate, and stress quality of design rather than modernity of design, partly because it avoids having two arguments at once, and partly because it is genuinely more important.

TGPerhaps also relevant to Morris, I’m interested in how far you think we should make distinctions between a socialist or communist concern with the pleasantness of cities and a social democratic or ameliorative one, or whether this may actually be a basis for coalition, not least given the horrendous class and particularly race based inequalities of health in London because of pollution? You emphasis the ways in which Morrison made London pleasanter, and perhaps there’s something similar in The Future of Socialism’s, “We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks”7, and on the more radical side there’s Livingstone’s stress on herbaceous borders, a great deal of post ‘68 urbanism and then Morris, although perhaps it’s the more radical section that articulate this more to anti-urbanism.

OHThis isn’t really a question but absolutely yes, and I read those lines in Crosland and completely endorse them, and I think we do sometimes have to deal with the miserable hairshirt Fabianism that he’s arguing against there both within the left as well as against the Fabians’ direct inheritors. I recall well here a pretty ok green paper on housing that Labour put out in the Corbyn era being trailed with a big pic of some utterly miserable, mean, pinched little houses (that had actually appeared on the notorious ‘Bad British Architecture’ blog that a prominent architecture professional wrote under a psuedonym), and that general haptic grimness, tiny houses, tiny windows, tarmac, no trees, spiked fences everywhere and culs-de-sac, is one of the worst things about this country, and something New Labour actually promised to change, before the obsession with emulating the US and dogwhistling about crime took over. If we can ally with otherwise crap people on ‘take down spiked fences and CCTV and make air properly breathable’ I’m happy to. I actually don’t think there’s a big distinction at all between Livingstone and Crosland on this, and it’s a place to make converts rather than draw lines.

TGFinally, a more speculative question, you make a convincing argument that London is almost definitely too big and certainly needs to be stopped from growing further. Indeed, you give a strong sense of how a lot of what’s good about London is the consequence, for example, with what you describe as its “accidental desegregation”, of its shrinking in the decades following the Second World War. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that a Covid shaped move towards more working from home, may see large numbers of people who previously needed to live in London for work but may not have “actually liked living in London” to borrow your description of those who planned what was good in London architecture and planning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leaving. What, and let’s imagine Sadiq Khan builds on his regretfully agreeing with you and that this could be done from above, could be done to make a post-Covid London of 6-7 million (so an outside chance of getting down to Abercombie plan numbers) rather than 9 million inhabitants work better?

OHI would not recommend going straight back to the Abercrombie Plan and trying it again, though I think it’s worth taking seriously rather than being seen as an aberration or a disaster. One of the problems with that era is that in order to convince people to move out of London a certain anti-urbanist culture took hold, a suburban and fearful idea of what cities are, and that had pretty bad effects. I don’t think either that one would ncecessarily want people moving to new New Towns on the outskirts of London (the existing ones, fine) or making London less urban, the point is to make other cities more urban, through them having more power, better infrastructure, better housing, better jobs, and so forth. I think a huge amount of young incomers to London don’t actually like it that much but do like being in a city, and would be happier in Southampton or Sheffield. The issue there is that the jobs and the investment are here and not in Southampton or Sheffield, and that of course is what needs to change. A shift from London may now happen because of the pandemic, but if it’s a shift from London to Hastings or Margate it won’t actually change the economic geography of the UK all that much.

I think a huge amount of young incomers to London don’t actually like it that much but do like being in a city, and would be happier in Southampton or Sheffield. The issue there is that the jobs and the investment are here.

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  1. This interview was conducted before the publication of Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones. 2021 Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too. London: Repeater Books, which we’d recommend for more on community wealth building. 

  2. Hilary Wainwright. 1987. Labour: A Tale of Two Parties. London: The Hogarth Press. p. 53. 

  3. Raymond Williams. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 121. 

  4. Joan Robinson. [1962]. 1964. Economic Philosophy. London: Pelican. p. 46. 

  5. Greater London Council. 1985. The London Industrial Strategy. London. Greater London Council. p. 18. 

  6. Nikolaus Pevsner. [1936]. 1991. Pioneers of Modern Design from William Morris to Walter Gropius. London: Penguin. 

  7. But see also the critique in E. P. Thompson. [1957]. 2014. “Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines”. In Edited by Carl Winslow. E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. New York: Monthly Review Press. p. 86. “the American tourist’s dream. It is nice for an MP to slip out of the House for a full meal in a pleasure-garden; but are we sure this is what socialists mean by the “full life”? This is a bit more middle-class life all round; there is no sense of a socialist community; redesigned street lamps and kiosks but not factories and cities. And then it is a list of things: it tells us nothing about people—the values of the men and women eating the food, walking under the lights, wearing the clothes; the quality of the plays, the murals, the statues.”