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The Capacity to Imagine: Labour in Local Government

by Tom Blackburn / January 4, 2020

Photo: Alan Denney

Beyond Westminster  }
The Labour left's presence in local government remains weak. What can the history of 'municipal Labourism' teach us about the challenges councils face today? 12154 words / 48 min read

The councillors were indeed up against a situation which was new at the time, but which has faced many dedicated socialists since. Convinced of the need for fundamental changes in the system, such people have believed that if elected they will be in a position to make a major impact on the lives of those they represent. But once elected, whether in local or national government, they have found that their opportunities are smaller than expected. They are hemmed in by the structure of property relations which in turn is reinforced by administrative ties and legal props. They are bound down by the financial fetters imposed from on high. The existing framework is too strong for them.

Many such people become sidetracked by the practical details of administration; unconsciously their sights are lowered, the achievement of small things becomes a substitute for the great things they once envisaged. Others become profoundly disillusioned.
Noreen Branson, ‘Poplarism’1

Despite the Labour left’s much-celebrated history of municipal radicalism, from Poplar to Clay Cross to Liverpool, its presence in local government today is very weak. Labour councils are still largely the domain of the party’s right and centre; while some of these are controlled by the “zombie Blairites” justly lambasted by Aditya Chakrabortty, the majority of them are in the hands of local leaderships operating, as Dan Frost has observed, “within a much older tradition of nervous municipal Labourism”.

The sheer scale of the cuts imposed on local government over nearly a decade makes the need for a radical alternative at the local level every bit as urgent as it is at the national one. Local councils have been left to bear much of the brunt of austerity since 2010, with more to come: they face a funding gap of £7.8bn by 2025, while by 2020, core funding from central government is set to have fallen by £16bn over the preceding decade. This has left Labour councillors, as Frost has put it, trying “to make the best of an increasingly bad situation”. Labour councils have been hardest hit, doubtless deliberately, with 97% of total cuts to local services for the most vulnerable residents having been foisted on the poorest fifth of councils in England.

In spite of all this, the likelihood of all-out confrontations flaring up between local councils and central government is, for the time being at least, still fairly remote. This is not least because the latter has consistently gone to great lengths (under New Labour as well as Tory governments)2 to restrain the room for manoeuvre previously available to the former: as Frost again points out, “the ‘martyrdom’ of left-wing councillors is likely to be even less effective than before” in existing circumstances, given that councillors who refuse to set cuts budgets will simply have those cuts made for them by the Chief Financial Officer. But there have been signs that Labour Party members are dissatisfied with the performance of their own party’s councils, unfairly targeted for cuts though they have been, and that they want to see substantial changes. The protracted anti-gentrification struggle to depose the former leadership of Haringey Council was just one indication of a wider discontent that had long been bubbling under the surface, and not just in that one borough.

However, the battle to displace the old council leadership in Haringey remains fairly exceptional. Though it has occupied a pre-eminent position in the party in recent years, Labour’s left wing has yet to mount any serious and co-ordinated advance in local government. This is partly a matter of having spent so much of its time since 2015 defending Jeremy Corbyn’s generally besieged leadership. The relative lack of attention devoted to local government also, no doubt, reflects the fact that between the general elections of 2017 and 2019, power at the national level appeared a realistic near-term prospect. The deliberate efforts of successive central governments to curb the autonomy of local government have also caused considerable uncertainty on the left about how socialist councillors could actually make effective, radical use of their office.

Some Labour activists are looking to the new generation of municipalism in continental Europe for inspiration, but there are also municipal precedents closer to home from which we can learn valuable lessons. Particularly pertinent is the example of what John Gyford called the ‘new urban left’, which radically shook up a series of Labour councils (most famously, the Greater London Council, or GLC) in the 1980s. In contradistinction to traditional municipal Labourism, the new urban left of that era aimed not only to deliver and protect local public services as best it could, but to open up the process of making and implementing policy, and to turn town halls into “a political base from which to campaign within the community on a wide variety of issues”, developing them into centres of culture, discussion and social activity.3 While far from politically homogeneous, this municipal left shared a common concern with developing positive local socialist programmes and a distinctive vision for local government. It sought to use its platform in local government to develop a new, more participatory and less bureaucratic form of socialist politics, and to demonstrate practically that there was an alternative to the Thatcherite onslaught of that time.

Crucially, Gyford has also stressed that without “pre-figurative as well as defensive strategies” – in other words, a credible and coherent vision for the reform and democratisation of local government, as well as active community mobilisation – campaigns to defend councils against the encroaching neoliberal discipline of central government are always likely to be at a major disadvantage.4 As well as new forms of cultural engagement, this requires serious thinking about what a socialist local authority can actually deliver, and how. The absence of such a vision more recently may go part of the way to explaining, along with the general weakness of wider labour movement forces, why the enormous cuts inflicted on local government in recent years have so far passed with only fragmented opposition lining up against them. Building alliances against cuts to council services has also been rendered much more difficult by the fact that Labour councils across Britain have implemented such deep cuts to their own, and all too often with little serious complaint.

With Labour facing at least another parliamentary term out of government at Westminster, no doubt some activists will turn their attention to the arena where it does still exercise some limited power: local government. Indeed, while rarely cited as a factor in its woes at Westminster, the poor reputation of many Labour councils can only serve to corrode trust in the party as a whole; as the recent general election demonstrated, that trust was already precarious. But addressing this will require the next Labour leadership to take more risks in this area than its predecessor ultimately did, and to equip the party’s grassroots with the tools it needs both to change local policy and the composition of Labour council groups, as well as the freedom to experiment with new methods of engaging with their communities and developing popular capacities.

Characteristics of municipal Labourism

The paternalistic and top-down dispositions of Labourism at the national level have made an indelible mark on its presence in local government as well. The precursors of municipal Labourism lay in the ‘gas-and-water socialism’ of Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham in the 1870s, where the local mayoralty pursued social reform with a view to improving overall economic efficiency. For Labour, the pursuit of local reform was initially less technocratic and more political: the extension of democracy was an important consideration for early Labour councils, as was the expansion of public ownership.5 There was, however, relatively little overlap between the two. Indeed, as we will see, it was Labour’s experiences with public ownership at the local level that would come to have a substantial influence on its later nationalisations and the specific form these government-owned firms took.

Mike Davis has written of how, both in Europe and the United States, “the workers’ movement began to face up to the challenges of civil administration in the 1880s”, forcing socialists to grapple with the tough questions of what they could achieve at the municipal level and how this related to the wider struggle for social transformation.6 Despite common fears on the radical left “that municipalism could become an endless detour from the road to socialism”, there was in fact a wide consensus within the burgeoning international working class movement “that local government should be a laboratory for testing socialist policies”. Given the dire state of municipal services and the desperate needs of the urban working class, socialists could hardly stand aloof in any case; instead, they set about implementing improvements to sanitation, public leisure facilities, housing and employment conditions.

Ralph Miliband has explained the specific appeal that local government has long held for socialists and other would-be social reformers.7 But in addition to this communitarian and solidaristic appeal on the one hand, local government has also provided no shortage of opportunities for self-aggrandisement and even corruption on the other. Firstly, local politics offered an outlet for radicals of various stripes as well as other civic-minded individuals keen to find ways of ameliorating pressing local grievances and hardships, providing “a way of giving expression to their activist and reformist promptings”. It enabled them to make a direct and tangible contribution to improving housing, health, education and so on in their area, bettering the lives of people around them: “The improvements might be small: but to those who were responsible for them, they were a visible sign that immediate activity for practical reform was not in vain.” It was also far easier for working people to get into local government than into Parliament, and the personal satisfaction drawn from the recognition and esteem that went with this should not be underestimated. Participation in local government, Miliband comments, “gave status, prestige, honour and influence to people who otherwise had very little or none of it”. With this local esteem came the potential for patronage (and worse) which many Labour councillors would find difficult to resist.

Both the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party took an especially keen interest in local government from the late 19th and early 20th century, seeing potential in it for the improvement of working-class living standards and the amelioration of the worst facets of poverty and hardship. It was the former’s role that would prove most decisive in determining the future shape of municipal Labourism. For Fabianism, local government seemed to open up an opportunity to incrementally build up and develop power without embarking on a direct confrontation with central government.8 Keith Bassett has observed that the Fabians saw “the progressive municipalisation of industries and services” as crucial to their strategy of steady socialist advance. While this “optimism in a municipal road to socialism was less evident” by the 1920s, in Bassett’s assessment, “the municipal dimension remained strong… it was still envisaged that the bulk of industry would ultimately be administered and controlled at the municipal level”.9

Municipal activism was a crucial early focus for Labour politics, partly reflecting the marginality and weakness of independent labour representation in Parliament at the turn of the 20th century. Labour groups took control of two local councils (West Ham in 1898 and Woolwich in 1903) prior to the formal constitution of the Labour Party in 1906. This imposition of political contestation on local government was hardly welcomed by the conservative, propertied elements who had previously ruled the roost in that arena, and who had sought with considerable success to keep rates down and the provision of services parsimonious.10 In any event, as the party’s parliamentary ranks strengthened and the prospect of exercising central state power loomed larger in the Labour imaginary, “the focus began to shift away from the town halls to Westminster”.

Thus, the idea “that the road to socialism lay through the electoral capture of central government, followed by a planned reconstruction of society” steadily became the party’s “dominant strategy”.11 But the early Labour local authorities were “determined to use their new power to apply collective solutions to problems of bad housing, poor health and insecurity”, and these councils “built much of the early welfare state from the bottom up”, including through public works, expanded healthcare and increased poor relief. Several Labour councils (most famously Poplar, but also West Ham, Chester-le-Street and Bedwellty) found themselves coming into conflict with central government.12

Some of these early Labour councils would display a considerable degree of radicalism over and above the general standard of municipal Labourist interventionism to improve housing conditions, extend healthcare provision, and provide employment opportunities. There was substantial pressure, however, for a municipal socialism that extended beyond this; Bassett notes that the developing Labourist orthodoxy, strongly influenced as it was by the prescriptions of Fabianism, “did not proceed unchallenged” and in fact faced challenges from a number of quarters, including the ILP and other Marxist or Marxist-influenced elements within the Labour Party, as well as the adherents of guild socialism before 1923. Labour’s more radical wing included some militants who had had personal experience of the ‘little Moscows’ of the 1920s, and hence took a different view of what local political activism should be about, particularly its potential role in the struggle for socialism: “These oppositional tendencies viewed local government and local-central relations in a more critical way, that either implied more radical political action at the local level or pointed towards a thorough-going reconstruction of central-local state relations.”13

The example set by Poplar, where Labour councillors led by George Lansbury had accepted prison rather than cut outdoor relief rates for the unemployed, and the influence of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement on local politics helped to spur a wave of municipal radicalism in the 1920s.14 But while this socialist activity in local government could draw on energetic militancy in abundance, it lacked theoretical or strategic clarity. Britain’s labour movement had been subject to “relative insulation” from the long-running and detailed debates about local democracy and its potential role in socialist advance that had taken place on the continent. This topic had formed, as Bassett points out, “one of the basic concerns of European socialist thought from the utopian socialism of the early nineteenth century through the work of Marx to the divergent perspectives of Lenin, Kautsky and Bernstein at the beginning of the twentieth century”.15 The local socialism of the British labour movement, even in its more radical variants, was by comparison inadequately theorised from the outset.

Not that any of this made the fear and even hatred which these radical councils inspired among conservatives any less intense. Tory governments have always looked on the more militant Labour councils that have emerged throughout the party’s history with great alarm and hostility. What has preoccupied them in particular is a fear that municipal socialist experiments might find a way of scaling up and coming to form an important component of a broader socialist offensive, however unclear local socialists have been on how this might come about. In the 1920s, with Poplarism still fresh in the memory, the Tory governments of the era “saw the local redistributive policies followed by some Labour councils as a kind of socialist movement in the making”. Adding to this anxiety was the fact that for most of its history, prior to devolution in Scotland and Wales, local government was “almost the only centre of power outside Parliament itself that [could] claim legitimacy on the basis of universal suffrage and a popular vote”.16

However, once the initial tide of municipal radicalism ebbed, there was a period in which neither left nor right of the Labour Party concerned itself too much with local democracy. There was what Gyford calls an “implicit downgrading of the role of local government” after 1945, with a reforming Labour government in office at Westminster. This was reflected in the internal debates within the party, and the fact that there was no major conference debate on local government for almost a decade after the end of World War II.17 As Gyford notes, Herbert Morrison was among the more prominent voices speaking up for the interests of Labour councillors in this period. Morrison had led the London County Council (LCC) from 1934-40, and had a major bearing on Labour’s subsequent activities and conduct in local government. In Morrison’s view, the optimal relationship between the party’s rank-and-file and their councillors was one which essentially reflected that between party members and parliamentarians. For Morrison, local parties’ “influence should stop well short of telling councillors how to act”.18 A soon-to-be familiar pattern was in the process of being set:

Labour councils mostly conducted their business on the basis of a benevolent paternalism. Decisions were taken behind closed doors, by a handful of senior councillors. Backbenchers were advised not to rock the boat. Councils were run with pomp and ceremony, and offices allocated according to Buggins’ turn and masonry. The absence of both any innovative spirit and any search for radical solutions was a lost opportunity.19

As transport minister in the second (1929-31) Labour government, Morrison had been instrumental in the creation of London Transport, which would later provide Labour with an influential reference point when taking other industries into public ownership after the war. Tellingly, Morrison had rejected the notion that he should appoint dedicated workers’ representatives to the board of London Transport, and instead insisted that he wanted it “to be run exclusively by ‘men of a business turn of mind’”, though he added that this could stretch as far as including trade unionists so long as they too were cast in this mould. Morrison also scorned the suggestion (which George Lansbury had already put into practice in Poplar) that council officers should be “appointed on the basis of political sympathy for a Labour programme, claiming that it would encourage servility and toadyism”. Although he made a point of renouncing any social ties with council officers outside of work, their impact on Morrison was an enduring one, and this alliance of Labour councillors and council officers “was to prove a powerful coalition not only in the case of the LCC but elsewhere”.20

Unsurprisingly, then, council officers would come to take much of the initiative as far as Labour councils were concerned. Gyford has highlighted the importance of their influence, noting that municipal Labourism was not “promoted solely or even mainly through the direct initiatives of local Labour politicians”. In fact, much of its policymaking was guided by council officers “responding to what they saw as the broad predilections of Labour members”. Local Labour parties were ill-equipped to devise and develop their own detailed policy proposals in any case – not that they were especially encouraged to do so – although they were able to exert a more nebulous kind of political pressure which, according to Gyford, wasn’t without its positive effects: “what they could do, and did, was to provide the political climate within which expansion and initiative could flourish”.21 This influence, however, tended to be decidedly limited and even begrudging.

The inevitable result of the closed and bureaucratic political culture of municipal Labourism, suspicious of outsiders and hostile towards any concerted attempts to exert pressure from below, was widespread and systematic corruption. Numerous Labour council leaders, lord mayors and council committee chairs were caught up in scandals related to the wave of slum clearances and redevelopment which took place across urban Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. It is worth noting at this point that conflicts between working-class residents (and their organisations and campaigns) and Labour councils over housing – the cause of so much aggravation in so many Labour-controlled boroughs today – are nothing new, and nor is the thinly-veiled indifference of some of these councils to residents’ housing needs:

In many areas grass-roots community groups emerged which tried to prevent, or to deflect elsewhere, the advent of the bulldozer: although they were to prove the origins of a widespread community action movement their immediate attempts to defend their neighbourhoods often ended in failure. For some of those involved the bitterest irony was when they realised that the council whose plans they were contesting was controlled by the Labour Party to whom they would normally have expected to look for protection of their interests.22

Labour councils (especially where they were not generally subjected to serious electoral challenge) very often conducted their business in a particularly insular manner – keeping council documents out of the hands of the local press, brief council meetings with low public attendance and committee meetings held behind closed doors, while many key decisions were taken by leading cliques within Labour groups without even backbench councillors having any involvement. Such was the extent of corruption in Labour local authorities, and the subsequent embarrassment it caused when it was exposed, the party was forced to appoint a committee to investigate its own practices in local government. When the committee reported back in June 1975, among its recommendations was that Labour councils to subject themselves to greater public scrutiny to reduce the risk of corruption and keep councillors accountable. Gyford comments that this “touched on some of the major weaknesses which had sometimes afflicted municipal Labourism”, in which “a form of local politics which could often be imaginative and caring could also on occasions stumble into the errors of insensitive planning and high-rise housing and into the quagmire of public sector corruption”.23

Gyford adds that the “educational and cultural gap” between council officers and councillors, which had widened from the 1960s as officers were increasingly drawn from the expanded ranks of university graduates, also contributed towards rendering Labour councils wide open to abuses of power. Policymaking at the local level tended to become even more opaque than it had been previously; this in turn made it considerably more difficult for local councillors to maintain a good grasp on local party policy, and gave compromised local leaderships more opportunities for grift and general misconduct. The “unpaid part-time amateurs” who comprised the broad mass of Labour councillors – as well as being prone to the temptations of “civic pomp and circumstance and… the fruits of patronage politics” – were in no position to exert themselves effectively, and were easily manipulated by those in positions of real local power:

The closed and strong Labour authority, with councillors who were both quiescent and acquiescent, was a body ripe for instruction and leadership, whether from an outstanding councillor, a dynamic professional officer, a proselytising Whitehall department or a developer with an eye to the main chance. As such it was a hostage to fortune, capable of being employed for ends that might be good or bad or a mixture of the two.24

Even leaving its scandals and corruption to one side, municipal Labourism’s “heavy-handed paternalism” and its frequent “insensitivity to the self-expressed interests of ordinary people” resulted in lingering scepticism and discontent among its supposed beneficiaries. As Bassett has noted, Thatcherite populism seized adroitly on the ambivalence many people felt towards local government and the welfare state as a whole, “increasingly experienced… as a remote form of bureaucratic repression rather than an agent of liberation”.25 With the help of carefully calculated populist giveaways like Right to Buy, the Tory attempt to rein in the (always compromised) autonomy of local democracy struck a chord with enough people to make it politically viable, even though it in fact required a considerable extension of centralisation, contrary to the rhetoric deployed to justify it, and the large-scale transfer of responsibility from elected councils to unelected quangos.

Gyford’s final verdict on municipal Labourism remains definitive: “Usually it did the right things for people; but sometimes it could do the wrong things to people; and only rarely had it previously discussed either of those things with people.”26 This, coupled with the wider crisis of social democracy, was to be its undoing in its quintessential post-war form; later incarnations of municipal Labourism would certainly maintain many of its more anti-democratic characteristics, and often its conspicuous conflicts of interest as well, but accommodated to a neoliberal economic and political framework.

By the 1970s, as the fraying of the social-democratic consensus was becoming increasingly obvious, a new generation of radical activists was beginning to reach conclusions such as those elaborated upon by Gyford and Bassett – and, despite their initial (and entirely understandable) misgivings about the Labour Party, they were joining it so that they could act effectively to change the areas in which they lived for the better. This new urban left would leave a lasting mark on Labour in local government, soon making itself the subject of immense controversy, including an unscrupulous, bitter hate campaign waged by much of the press, and ultimately leaving behind a legacy that would be alternately denigrated and appropriated from.

Learning from the new urban left

Inspired by the social movements of the mid-late 1960s and generally of a left-libertarian political persuasion, the new urban left really started to make its presence felt in the Labour Party during the following decade. Dismayed by the performance of Harold Wilson’s governments from 1964-70 and heavily influenced by strongly Labour-sceptic texts such as Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, much of this milieu had been deeply wary of the Labour Party and unenthusiastic about the prospects it offered for radical social change.

However, several factors eventually persuaded many of these activists to join Labour: the failure of the ‘first’ (post-1956) New Left to establish enduring mass parties and organisations of its own, the mounting crisis of post-war Labourism, and the need to find a way beyond the strategic impasse that the post-’68 social movements had reached within a few years.27 Their libertarianism was therefore leavened by a pragmatism and realism not always evident on the New Left after 1968, and their entry into Labour represented a rejection of the twin temptations of barren sectarianism and impotent, splintered ultra-leftism, to which so many young activists of the time succumbed.

A good number of these newcomers to the party had “experience of working within community action groups, or working in such local government professions as planning and social work” which they brought with them into Labour. Patrick Seyd points out that given this background, and armed as they were with a strong critique of traditional Labourism (informed by direct experience of its manifestations at the local level), these activists were always “likely to encourage a new style of politics which was more open to community involvement and less likely to encourage professional detachment in local government”.28 While proving to be an important training ground for the new urban left, the community action groups that had proliferated from the late 1960s onwards had failed to scale up into a coherent national movement for social change, one that might have been able to draw on the kind of wider solidarities the labour movement could offer. Many such community action initiatives had failed to sustain themselves over the long (or even medium) term. The internal changes taking place in the Labour Party during this period were, in addition, serving to make it more congenial to community-based activism and new alliances with social movements.29

Gyford notes that as this reorientation towards the Labour Party was picking up pace, a more sophisticated analysis of the capitalist state was taking root among this new Labour left, initially inspired by Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society and the debates that followed its publication. This had important implications for the various forms their activism was taking at the local level, and the new directions they would pursue in subsequent years. The nascent new urban left put its own spin on the concept of ‘relative autonomy’ first developed by Nicos Poulantzas in his Political Power and Social Classes. Influenced further by Cynthia Cockburn’s The Local State, the activists of the new urban left understood the localised struggles in which they were engaged as “class struggles in the field of reproduction”, and aimed “to connect their local activities with the struggle to transform the Labour Party and through it the state at the national level”.30 They sought to adapt the concept of relative autonomy to the relationship between local and central government:

This ‘relative autonomy’ was important not only because it abandoned the notion of a state which was merely ‘the executive committee of the bourgeoisie’ but also because it embraced the possibility that the local level of the state might itself possess a certain degree of autonomy from the central state. Some activists began to see the local state as having a certain functional specificity of its own, and also a certain degree of open-ness and accessibility to popular pressure which distinguished it from the central state.31

The arrival of the new urban left in local government was greatly expedited by Labour’s disastrous performance in the local elections of 1967 and 1968. The Tories won control of the GLC and ten county councils in 1967, along with Bradford, Cardiff, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham, taking more than 1,500 council seats from Labour. The following year’s elections were even worse: Labour won less than 17% of seats in provincial boroughs and urban districts in 1968, suffering a total net loss of over 1,600 seats as against 1,630 gains for the Tories. Having controlled 20 London boroughs going into the 1968 local elections, Labour retained only four afterwards. This effectively cleared out a generation of ‘old guard’ Labour councillors in some areas and, as Gyford puts it, “eased the way for the eventual emergence of local socialism”.32 From the early 1970s, this would start to be reflected in the very different composition of some Labour council groups, and the fairly swift passage of new left councillors into positions of influence.

Yet the influx of new left-leaning Labour councillors was, as Panitch and Leys point out, certainly not wholly comprised of “radical socialists”.33 Some of these newcomers “exhibited a distinctly technocratic orientation to politics, tinged with a vaguely participationist flavour”; in other words, their politics were not always all that distinct from the Wilson-era Labour Party many of them had frequently scorned. Even so, they provided “a new fluidity to local Labour politics, and an opening to people who had been more profoundly touched by the radicalism of the late 1960s”. Their preceding experiences with other forms of activism, and the shortcomings of these, had led them “to take a more pragmatic view of alliances with trade unions in anti-cuts campaigns, and to develop a more sophisticated view of the state than the term ‘cooptation’ allowed for”. Sceptical of Labour technocracy and paternalism as well as being contemptuous of the Tammany Hall-esque corruption so common to Labour in local government, and aware of the limits of both “direct action” and “sectarian Trotskyist politics”, the party’s new left councillors began to experiment with new approaches.

Despite enduring scepticism among the community action and extra-parliamentary milieu towards the first wave of new left Labour councillors elected in 1970-1, “as the conflict inside the party heated up through the 1970s, many more joined the battle”. Seyd observes that this renewed interest in local government and local activism, largely born out of the community action movement, was fuelled further by the defeat of the Callaghan government in 1979. With Labour facing what would prove to be an extended spell out of national office – and, as part of the fallout of defeat, being gripped by major and deepening internal ructions – many party activists concentrated more on local government instead. However, this turn towards the councils was somewhat out of character for the Labour left as a whole. Despite the early wave of municipal radicalism during the first decades of the 20th century, the older Labour left had long since raised its sights somewhat higher than local government by the time the new urban left came along:

The Labour Left’s objective has been the transformation of society and it believed that overall control of the economy through centralised public ownership was the first priority. As a consequence it has tended to regard local government, whilst not unimportant, as of secondary concern. Furthermore, the need in local government to concentrate upon matters of practical detail, to become immersed in problems of administration, and to recognise the structural and legal constraints on local authorities’ powers made local government unattractive to those more concerned with principled beliefs.34

While the origins of much of the new urban left in community and local activism made their entry into local government seem like a natural progression, the changed political context – specifically, that of deep-seated social-democratic decline – also forced many on the more traditionalist wing of the Labour left to reconsider their earlier assumptions. With local government having become a “central target” of austerity measures under both Labour and Conservative central governments, and the fight for accountability and party democracy reaching fever pitch, for Seyd it was inevitable that these struggles “spilled over into local government” as well. Thus, the Labour left found itself “increasingly drawn into a defence of, and involvement in, local government”.35

In addition to being on the frontline of the struggle against government austerity measures, the new urban left sought to use its position in local government to pioneer new methods of organising and of political practice. As well as attempting to lay the groundwork for a decentralised, democratic socialism ‘from the bottom up’, the new urban left sought to address the increasing fragmentation of Labour’s traditional social base and arrest its decline by building a new social coalition around what remained of it, linking it up with the anti-racist, feminist and gay rights movements. It also supported anti-nuclear and peace campaigns, and backed international causes such as the South African anti-apartheid campaign and (more controversially) the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland.36 To put it mildly, traditional Labourism (left Labourism included) had, on the whole, been chary about associating itself with extra-parliamentary movements and campaigns such as these, situated as they were well beyond the purview of the official labour movement.

Cultural engagement was a key concern for the new urban left. As Stewart Lansley, Sue Goss and Christian Wolmar have argued, this again represented a break with tradition on the Labour left, the attitude of which towards culture has been “somewhat ambiguous” over the years.37 This ambiguity had deep roots in Labour’s political culture, they add, reflecting both “the party’s obsession with ‘Labourism’ and with class politics in which struggle was assumed to take place at the workplace through the mechanism of mass trade unions, and with the elitism associated with British culture and art”.

Another factor was the strong bias in local government against being seen to ‘politicise’ art and culture, which had previously “enjoyed a neutral political status at least when it comes to national funding”. The GLC was an important exception to this rule, and saw cultural engagement as crucial to the struggle for counter-hegemony; its cultural policies drew inspiration from the Italian Communist Party and, closer to home, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. While ‘high culture’ (such as opera, theatre and ballet) continued to receive support, the main focus of GLC cultural policy was on popular culture, with festivals and free concerts featuring prominently. GLC festivals encompassed, for example, “free music, dance, arts and exhibitions, children’s entertainment and fireworks along the riverbank” and were well attended. While “not overtly political”, Lansley and his co-authors note that events of this sort aimed to foster social solidarity as well as bolstering the GLC’s own public image.

Other events organised by the GLC, meanwhile, were used “more explicitly as a vehicle for politicisation”, including anti-racist events, anti-unemployment festivals and pensioners’ days. According to Lansley, Goss and Wolmar, these “provided not merely a successful campaign forum, but also aimed at giving Londoners a sense of community and social identity and solidarity, and at raising public awareness of the GLC”. There was a certain ambiguity in this that is worth noting, however: the GLC tended to play on feelings of local patriotism and civic pride, positioning itself as “the institutional embodiment of London”38 and as being worthy of support on that basis, rather than necessarily putting forward a specifically socialist cultural alternative. Nevertheless, the GLC also provided funding for arts programmes targeted at young and marginalised people, including photography, film-making and community radio projects. These programmes again “had a clear political objective of endowing certain groups with an independent cultural voice” which might otherwise have been denied to them.39

The GLC was able to devote so many of its energies and resources to culture because otherwise, there were relatively few services (besides transport, the fire service and waste disposal) for which it had direct responsibility.40 Most public services in the capital were devolved to individual London boroughs. The GLC, therefore, “was not responsible for the delivery of any major welfare service”, which meant that when it came to changing the way public services related to their users, “the scope for experimentation was limited”. Furthermore, after its ‘Fares Fair’ transport policy was defeated in the courts, the GLC found itself “awash with money” which it could then channel into its other campaigns. As the council “had few difficult services to manage” it consequently “did not suffer the problems of many other urban councils” and had greater freedom to experiment in other areas. It was then cut off in its prime by the Thatcher government, “just as it was beginning to learn from some of its errors and some of the experiments were beginning to blossom”.

Meanwhile, the municipal left’s attempts to intervene in the economic sphere delivered mixed results. The GLC adopted a local industrial strategy again inspired by the Italian Communist Party.41 The approach adopted by the latter in its then-heartland of Emilia-Romagna had involved supporting “a patchwork of thousands of small firms, many of them co-operatives”; the regional government there “developed industrial parks, encouraged loan guarantee consortia [to] provide and guarantee loans to its members, and initiated special industrial centres [to] give advice and information on particular industries which could not be provided by the firms themselves”. The GLC sought to do similar with its Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), with which it provided £60m over three years, £18m of which was invested in 120 firms. GLEB aimed to “rejuvenate the flagging London economy, create and improve the quality of jobs, and widen the control that Londoners had over their working lives”. To this end, its investment was conditional on a number of factors, including “direct involvement [for GLEB] in management decisions aimed at persuading firms to commit themselves to remain in London, to abide by health and safety and equal opportunity legislation, to allow the establishment of trade unions and to allow an element of workers’ democracy”.

The extent and nature of the interventions undertaken by GLEB indicated the scale of the GLC and the wider new urban left’s ambition, and underlined just how radically they differed in their intent from the approaches taken by more orthodox local authorities. Previously, local government had generally restricted itself to minor economic incentives and palliatives – subsidies, grants, guidance and so on – in its efforts to support employment. It sought “to grease market mechanisms in the hope that these mechanisms might operate in favour of their locality”, but generally baulked at the idea of devising any local industrial strategy going beyond this.42 The GLC and GLEB, on the other hand, actively sought to promote higher standards of employment (including through organisation into trade unions), encourage socially useful production, support the formation and development of new worker-owned co-operatives, develop workplace democracy, and tackle marginalisation and oppression at work. While the new urban left was hardly starry-eyed about the scale of the contribution it could make to fighting the mass unemployment unleashed by the Thatcher government,43 it did hope that in this way it would at least be able to offset some of its worst local effects, while in the process contributing – albeit modestly – to the development of new socialist industrial policies and also of popular capacities.

Lansley, Goss and Wolmar conclude, however, that in the absence of “a supportive, national economic framework”, GLEB’s sectoral strategy proved “perhaps too ambitious to bear fruit on a small-scale regional basis”.44 It was also operating in a context of “deflationary national economic policy which fuelled the recession in the first half of the 1980s, and of the anti-interventionist stance of the government’s industrial policy”. In the end, many of the enterprises in receipt of GLEB support “proved to have severe financial difficulties”, with the Board increasingly coming to serve as “a lender of last resort, providing finance to companies that were unable to attract funds from elsewhere”.

GLEB also had “limited commercial expertise in appraising applications and drawing up investment packages”, while “a lot of investments were taken for wider political reasons rather than on grounds of sound commercial judgment”. The primary consequence of this was a high failure rate; GLEB proved unable “to separate social from investment objectives”, with firms operating to “tight margins” also expected “to meet social objectives such as providing staff training and facilities for the disabled, but without [support in meeting] the extra costs of doing so”. Encouraging trade union organisation also proved difficult given the small size of most of the firms GLEB supported and the pre-existing weakness of trade unionism in their wider sectors,45 as well as the mutual suspicion between some co-operatives and trade unions (the latter being wary of the former’s potential for self-exploitation).46

In the absence of “a highly supportive national party”, furthermore, the municipal left as a whole stood no real chance of fully achieving its various objectives. As Panitch and Leys have put it, “by the time it really got going, the balance of power at the national level was such that any and all political ‘messiness’ was treated like the plague”.47 While the activism of the Thatcher years (particularly the miners’ strike and the poll tax revolt) “was a direct descendant” of that which had preceded it since the late 1960s, once the right was back in the ascendant inside Labour, these struggles “could now only take the form of a series of defensive actions”. In effect, this returned the left to the same strategic impasse from which it had tried to break out years earlier. The strategy of the Bennite left had been “to build a bridge between the party and that activism, to inflect it in a socialist political direction and to infuse the party with it”, but its aims had been thwarted by Labour’s internal counter-revolution. The Labour new left’s defeat, then, came at a “huge political cost”:

Not only had it failed to democratise and transform the party, but this in turn meant that it had been unable to politicise the great industrial militancy of the time, or to ‘nationalise’ the myriad creative forms of community politics and local socialism.48

The Thatcherites understood far better than the Labour leaderships of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock that the struggles over local government were about more than the imposition of fiscal discipline. Economics, after all, were only the method: the object was to change the soul. Local councils, as Simon Duncan and Mark Goodwin have pointed out, are not simply mere providers of services.49 They may also, where they choose to assume the mantle, “embody important ideological and political roles”, and therefore “are not only important in a strict material sense”. They can seek to put forward alternative conceptions of how society, the economy and politics should be organised, as the new urban left tried to do. As such, these councils ended up, in Duncan and Goodwin’s words, “eliciting a political response apparently far out of proportion to their significance as spenders and policy-makers”. Indeed, for Norman Tebbit, the GLC epitomised “modern socialism”, and as such had to be crushed.50 Thus the municipal New Left’s radical-democratic urban politics was forcibly supplanted by its polar opposite: a neoliberal urbanism compelling local authorities to become more entrepreneurial and businesslike by pitting them against one another in the struggle for private investment, hiving off local public services to private providers, and (as a necessary part of the process) insulating them from effective popular input beyond the most perfunctory forms of consultation.

While the deprivation of support from the national Labour Party leadership put the new urban left at a major disadvantage, it made real errors of its own (which was inevitable, given the experimental nature of the project in which it was engaged). In particular, its attempts to broaden the scope of local decision-making, and to foster new and more participatory methods, had contradictory effects. Some New Left local authorities proved more reluctant to give up power in practice than in theory, and “there was often a desperation to ensure that local people would not express views that cut across the priorities that had already been decided”.51 Local Labour groups found it difficult to relinquish real responsibility, and it was sometimes the case that the new institutions and methods they had developed came to serve as “new communication techniques to campaign on policies already decided in the Party”, rather than to meaningfully incorporate “alternative points of view” into policymaking.

Even where there were concerted efforts to democratise and open up local councils, these local authorities “often only succeeded in opening up and listening to a very close knit group of community activists, many of whom were supported by the council in the first place, and who shared its political culture”. These beneficiaries were largely “younger and more energetic” with the time and inclination to attend meetings which others may have been prevented from attending by other commitments, or transport issues.52 There were conflicting interests and attitudes among community groups, not to mention between them and local council workforces. All too often, the result was that the most under-represented groups – those whose voices most needed amplifying – continued to be under-represented. For all the good intentions, campaigners from these groups still had to struggle to get a hearing from left-led local authorities:

The GLC, with its commitment to working with outside groups, and the (chronic) haste in which it did everything, tended to end up working with those organised in ways with which it was familiar, particularly those in trade unions or long established pressure groups. Many people – working class women, the unskilled, as well as black people – got by-passed again, their forms of self-organisation largely unrecognised and unsupported.53

It is important to learn the lessons – both positive and negative – that the experience of the new urban left offers us. On the positive side of the ledger, it was willing to use its position in local government to promote minority rights at a time when the Labour Party establishment was largely petrified of doing the same. The failure of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock to come to the new urban left’s aid when it was under such appalling attack remains an imposing black mark against the legacy of both, reflecting a particularly severe political collapse in the case of the former. Yet this collapse was much more than just a personal capitulation. In part, it reflected Foot’s increasing reliance on the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party and of the trade unions, not least for support on Labour’s National Executive Committee.54

More significantly, it signalled the final exhaustion of post-war parliamentary socialism in the old Bevanite mould. As Alan Freeman put it, “a section of the left – the Tribune group – was being obliged by history to pick up its bags and camp with the right, and the leavetaking was painful”.55 Thus did Foot, one-time scourge of the party whips, become Labour’s “extinct volcano”.56 However, despite his own involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of the 1950s and ‘60s, Foot had long displayed a certain ambivalence towards extra-parliamentary direct action of the kind undertaken by the Committee of 100 and favoured by many on the broader New Left.57 Painfully aware of the limitations of the Bevanite legacy and seeking to transcend them, the new urban left attempted, with varying degrees of success, to foster a new and more participatory political culture, to amplify minority voices, mitigate the impact of mass unemployment and deindustrialisation, and to call the entire Thatcherite project into question.

The ‘relative autonomy’ of the local state, and its ability to hold out against a hostile central government, proved to be tightly constrained. Left Labour councils had only a limited window in which they could exploit whatever relative autonomy was available to them. On the whole they made bold use of it – in highly unfavourable circumstances – while they were able, but to sustain and scale up their political project, they needed a supportive national government to come to their assistance (and at least, in the interim, an opposition leadership prepared to offer it steadfast solidarity). It was relatively early on, however, that the balance of political forces at the national level shifted sharply against Labour’s New Left, apparent in the rapidity with which the Labour left’s intra-party insurgency fell apart after 1981. The fragmented nature of the Labour new left’s experiments with power, as well as proving to be an Achilles heel in the short term, also had long-term repercussions for its legacy. Hilary Wainwright reflected on these a quarter of a century ago:

One problem for this new left that has made it easier to be wiped from memory is that its attempts to create a variety of forms of democratic or co-operative management of public resources in housing, health, education and local government, and its initiatives in the trade unions, by way of co-operatives or in a variety of campaigns to illustrate alternatives to production for profit, have been very localised and particular. Principles can be drawn from these experiences and generalised but, except all too briefly at the GLC, there has not been the impetus of a national political presence to test and develop ideas for a wider public.58

The new urban left was never “a uniform group with a clear and single vision”, but in fact “a fragile alliance of activists with no common plan or set of priorities”.59 This, though partly a product of differences in local demographics and municipal political cultures,60 greatly shortened the (already parlous) odds of success for any attempt to resist the Thatcherite offensive on local government. The attempted rebellion against rate-capping in 1985 soon degenerated into a debacle as the efforts of 16 Labour councils to present a united front against the Thatcher government collapsed, eventually leaving just Lambeth standing alone.61

These differences also hampered the new urban left’s ability to link up coherently with other political and industrial struggles of the time, most obviously that of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and hence helped choke off the formation of any broad and enduring radical left front against Thatcherite reaction. What might seem like the narcissism of small differences to an outsider in fact reflected deep and serious differences in strategy and orientation between these left councils. For instance, while the GLC and some other local authorities (notably several London borough councils and, for a period in the mid-1980s, Manchester) were movement-orientated, others – in particular the Liverpool Labour council of this era62 – were decidedly old-left in their approach.

Willie Thompson is scathing in his assessment of Militant which, he suggests, accentuated some of the worst and most chauvinistic features of traditional left Labourism to almost parodic levels; he has dismissed Militant as “myopic philistine Labourism masquerading as a revolutionary conspiracy”.63 Its resolute workerism and general scepticism towards the politics of race, gender and sexuality,64 which put it at odds with much of the new urban left, may perhaps be partly explained by the sheer scale and immediacy of the economic crisis (in the form of brutal deindustrialisation and mass unemployment) inflicted on Liverpool by the Thatcher government. These difficulties were compounded by the shambles the Labour council in Liverpool inherited from the departing Liberal administration that had immediately preceded it. While the city had been plagued by collapsing industries, failing public services and disgraceful housing standards for years, there was real mendacity on the part of the outgoing Liverpool Liberals. On their way out of office, the Liberals left behind a “sabotage budget” as a parting gift for the incoming Labour council, deliberately intended to force it into inflicting “sharp but unspecified spending cuts” on the city’s already hard-pressed residents.65

Militant, while a tight-knit Leninist organisation its own right, was also a product of the local political culture in Liverpool at the time. It was by no means first to introduce cloak-and-dagger methods to the city’s politics.66 The right-wing, ‘city boss’-style Braddock machine that Militant replaced had dominated the Labour Party in Liverpool for decades and, as Thompson has noted, “had been renowned for political racketeering and machine politics, the most disreputable aspects of unchallenged control by the traditional Labour Party right”. Rather than dismantling the Braddock apparatus of petty patronage and corruption, however, Militant took the opportunity “to lay hold of that machine and direct it to its own purposes”, appointing its own cadre to key posts and funnelling council cash to “front organisations”.67 While the Liverpool Labour council managed to rally strong support in the city for a time,68 Wainwright has observed that Militant’s “sectarianism” ultimately “meant it was incapable of uniting the diverse popular energies of Liverpool”,69 although it would subsequently play a leading role in the campaign against Thatcher’s poll tax.

Regardless of the new urban left’s political shortcomings, internal contradictions and strategic failures, its spirit is certainly worthy of emulation. Its pluck, ambition and determination – and most of all, its willingness to take the fight to the enemy as best it could – all contrast very favourably with today’s largely timorous municipal Labourism. The new urban left remains much discussed and much admired on the Labour left, but there is also a tendency to gaze in awe-struck, nostalgic wonderment at its achievements. To an extent this is understandable given the abysmal state of so many Labour councils today, but merely indulging in fantasies of historical re-enactment would be of little use; instead, the Labour left needs to consider how to approach the challenges local government faces in the here and now.

Beyond the ‘dented shield’?

The ‘dented shield’ provided by Labour councils has probably never looked more battered than it does today. But there is evidence, in Britain and abroad, to indicate that the radical potential of local government is not yet – even in the context of continually tightening fiscal and legal restraints – completely exhausted. The new municipalism which has taken hold in parts of Europe and the United States, and the innovative strategies adopted by the Labour council in Preston (the subject of much excitement on the Labour left, as well as substantial attention from national media) offer legitimate reasons to believe that local government can continue to serve as an effective laboratory for new socialist ideas, including alternative models of democratic public ownership, and new ways of relating to the wider community.

This new municipalism has provided socialists in British local government with real encouragement. In particular, number of councils are exploring ways in which they can use their own public procurement power to enhance economic democracy and encourage sustainable, socially just, long-term local development. The Labour council in Preston has been a pioneer in this area, and has received much attention both on the Labour left and more widely among those aiming to chart new, progressive paths in difficult times for local government. Initially emerging out of necessity after a planned £700m city-centre retail development scheme collapsed in 2011, the much-vaunted Preston Model has been termed by Aditya Chakrabortty as “guerrilla localism”. Rather than relying on and competing for speculative private investment from outside as neoliberal orthodoxy prescribes, the Preston Model aims to deploy public procurement for maximum social benefit. It encourages the development of new local enterprises, including through alternative models of ownership such as worker-owned firms, while ‘anchor institutions’ (large, generally immobile local institutions wielding significant purchasing power) play a key strategic role in the local economy.

Though its focus is strongly local, Preston is far from parochial, and its council’s leadership has keenly followed related developments overseas: in particular, the ‘Cleveland model’ of local economic development in the US, and the long-established Mondragon co-operative are just two examples which have been studied closely in Preston. The recent trend towards remunicipalisation is certainly a global one: according to the Transnational Institute, since 2000 there have been more than 835 cases of services being brought into municipal ownership and control in over 1,600 cities across 45 countries. But we should be very careful not to overstate its progress. The tide of municipal privatisation in Britain has yet to be stemmed, let alone decisively turned back. Under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government of 2010-15 – consistent with its dogmatic pursuit of fire-sale privatisation elsewhere – local authority spending on outsourced public services rose to £120bn, almost doubling from the £64bn it had totalled under New Labour.70 Peter Latham notes that while some councils are bringing some contracts back in house, this on its own is nothing new and does not necessarily signal any consistent large-scale shift towards remunicipalisation.71

The results of the Preston Model so far are nonetheless genuinely impressive, and according to the Centre for Local Economic Studies (CLES), some £74m has been put back into the local economy in Preston since 2013. Although the Preston Model has been caricatured in some hostile quarters as a beggar-thy-neighbour strategy, its benefits have extended beyond the city’s boundaries: £200m has been invested into the wider Lancashire economy, while the proportion of council spending going to Lancashire-based organisations rose from 39% in 2012/13 to 79.2% in 2016-17. Local unemployment, meanwhile, fell from 6.5% in 2014 to 3.1% in 2017, though headline unemployment figures should always be treated with caution given that they fail to adequately capture the pervasive underemployment and precarity now endemic to the British labour market. There are other advantages to the Preston Model beyond the purely economic, as CLES observes, including the fostering of new capacities in the local community and a stronger sense of municipal affinity among local residents. However, the longer-term financial sustainability of the Preston Model – denied a supportive central government as it will be for at least another five years, and with the impact of austerity biting deeper – seems less certain.

Any lasting renewal of municipal socialism is therefore likely to require the attentive support of a radical central government, intent on undoing the serious damage gone to local democracy by years of austerity and also reimagining its purpose in order to foster more democratic and egalitarian local economies. But in the wake of last month’s general election, such a government is now a sadly distant prospect. In any event, in renewing local democracy, we need to address more than questions of funding, and the quality and extent of service provision – as vital as it is that the resources so obviously needed are provided to rebuild shattered and emaciated local public services – and look towards pioneering new forms of less alienated, more responsive and participatory local politics in Britain’s working-class and marginalised communities.

Crucial in this respect is the work of building up a visible cultural and campaigning presence in local government, drawing attention both to the consequences of cuts and the need for a radical democratic renewal and transformation of local politics. The counter-hegemonic potential of local socialism must be treated with due seriousness; it is a matter of continually encouraging exploited, marginalised and oppressed people to find new ways of seeing the world, and their place in it, differently. Socialists in local government need to use their position, as much as is possible, as a platform for agitation and education. With exceptions such as the 1980s GLC, which positively revelled in tweaking Margaret Thatcher’s tail, this is a role that Labour councils have very rarely taken on with any real enthusiasm or imagination.

The cuts inflicted on local government since 2010 amount to nothing less than social and cultural vandalism.72 However, anecdotal evidence from the recent general election indicates that many voters have laid the blame for the failings of their local council services squarely at the door of those councils themselves. The role of central government in slashing the funding of Labour-run boroughs has been rendered more opaque, creating a confusion which the Tories have been able to exploit very cannily, albeit with extreme cynicism and dishonesty. At the very least, Labour councils must be prepared to be much more outspoken (and even provocative) on the issue, and to allocate the blame much more accurately. But this is complicated by the fact that these councils have been seen to do little to resist the cuts, and in any case adopting such a combative stance towards central government is a task for which many if not most Labour council leaderships are decidedly ill-disposed.

A key priority must be forging ongoing and close collaboration across Britain between socialists undertaking this work in local government, with a continuing exchange between them of ideas, methods and strategies. A good starting point with regard to this might, for example, be a new annual national gathering, along the lines of The World Transformed but specifically dedicated to local government, bringing together Labour councillors, council leaders and mayors with experts and grassroots activists to debate priorities, discuss concerns and share ideas. All of this is anathema to the “nervous municipal Labourism” that Dan Frost has rightly criticised, but it is necessary for socialists serious about using their vantage point in local government to build self-confidence and political consciousness in the wider community. The great fear of reactionaries was always that municipal socialism could be a harbinger of bigger and broader things to come, but in the absence of an imaginative, outward-focused, democratic and participatory agenda, it is always likely to find itself cut off from the popular energies and valuable knowledge it might otherwise have at its disposal, and therefore on the defensive.

The development of local election manifestos, for example, could be transformed into a major local democratic exercise, as Ada Colau’s mayoralty in Barcelona has attempted to do. Local Labour parties, trade unions, community groups and other campaigns could be invited to participate in the creation of new manifestos, contributing demands and evaluating priorities. This could then be followed up through ongoing consultation and public discussions – online and in person – to assess the progress (or otherwise) of the implementation of these local manifestos. Councils in the orthodox municipal Labourist mould would never contemplate such initiatives for fear of what demands might come forward, and would never willingly subject themselves to community criticism of this kind. Where these councils have invited ‘participation’, it has generally served either as a tick-box exercise or “to monitor and control discontent rather than to build people’s confidence and determination”.73 Offering real input, ownership and oversight of local manifestos to a wider community of participants has the potential to unlock energies, knowledge and talents which are too often left to lie dormant, while also giving councils an opportunity to explain candidly and in detail the precise challenges they face.

We should be careful, however, not to allow talk of community to obscure the contradictions contained therein (an age-old problem of orthodox Labourism, and a particular temptation in local government). The term itself is always highly problematic, as Cowley, Kaye, Mayo and Thompson have argued: “even if it does not clearly denote a set of existing social realities, the word nevertheless conveys vague notions of harmonious social relations”, whereas in reality, “one is confronted with a cluster of class positions, conflicts and interests, some of which are irreconcilable”.74 Cities are riven by continual class conflict both in the workplace and outside it: tenant against landlord, boss against worker, private against public. It is essential, therefore, that the next generation of municipal socialists highlights those contradictions and builds on them, in order to develop counter-power and enhance popular assertiveness, organisation and capabilities.

Greg Sharzer has observed that many localist projects, though mainly well-intentioned, have been prone to a basic confusion on this point.75 Radical critics of the Colau administration in Barcelona have made a similar argument: Charnock and Ribera-Fumaz acknowledge that Barcelona en Comú’s brand of ‘citizenist’ politics (specifically, the avoidance of clear class-based labels as implied by the term) has been accused of evasiveness over “who the privileged political subject at the heart of this new municipalist project really is”.76 In Sharzer’s view, a lack of political clarity has meant that far from building radical, forward-thinking alternatives, localism has often ended up “not as an alternative to neoliberalism, but as a way to implement it”. This has been borne out in Britain in recent years, with government verbiage about localism serving primarily as a cover to pass the buck for cuts on to local government.77 But for Sharzer, there is both the need and the potential to forge “a very different kind of prefiguration from radical localism” through local class politics, concentrating on the crucial questions of “how power works, how people outside small radical circles relate to power, and how to build campaigns that appeal to people who, in partial, contradictory ways, are questioning capitalist rule”.78

In Marc Karlin’s 1989 documentary Utopias, Sheila Rowbotham reflects on her experiences working with the GLC in the 1980s. She emphasises that one of the most important failings of socialist politics has been its persistent failure “to enable people to develop the capacity to imagine”, with Labour especially guilty of taking the path of least resistance, adjusting itself to pre-existing common sense rather than actively trying to transform it. This recognition was central to the praxis of the new urban left and remains perhaps its most valuable legacy today. In recent years, the Labour left has spent considerable time revisiting and reassessing this legacy; now it too must attempt to use local government to encourage that same capacity to imagine that the GLC and the new urban left sought to develop.


  1. Noreen Branson, Poplarism 1919-1925: George Lansbury and the Councillors’ Revolt, Lawrence & Wishart 1979, p26-7. 

  2. Peter Latham’s The State and Local Government: Towards a New Basis for ‘Local Democracy’ and the Defeat of Big Business Control (Manifesto Press 2011) provides a detailed account of how New Labour’s reforms to local government facilitated the further privatisation and marketisation of local public services, encouraged the adoption of private sector management techniques and left a regressive council tax system firmly in place. 

  3. John Gyford, The Politics of Local Socialism, George Allen & Unwin 1985, p53. 

  4. Gyford 1985, p32-3. 

  5. Gyford 1985, p4-5. 

  6. Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, Verso 2018, p82-3. 

  7. Ralph Miliband, Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford University Press 1982, p137. 

  8. Murray Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities, Cassell 1995, p216. 

  9. Keith Bassett, ‘Labour, Socialism and Local Democracy’, in Martin Boddy and Colin Fudge (eds.), Local Socialism? Labour Councils and New Left Alternatives, Macmillan 1984, p84. 

  10. Miliband 1982, p133. 

  11. Gyford 1985, p3. 

  12. Stewart Lansley, Sue Goss and Christian Wolmar, Councils in Conflict: The Rise and Fall of the Municipal Left, Macmillan 1989, p1-2. 

  13. Bassett 1984, p85. 

  14. James Hinton, Labour and Socialism: A History of the British Labour Movement, 1867–1974, Wheatsheaf Books 1983, p134-5. 

  15. Bassett 1984, p87. 

  16. Simon Duncan and Mark Goodwin, The Local State and Uneven Development: Behind the Local Government Crisis, Polity Press 1988, xiii. 

  17. Bassett 1984, p90. 

  18. Gyford 1985, p3-4. 

  19. Lansley et al 1989, p4. 

  20. Gyford 1985, p4-5. 

  21. Gyford 1985, p5-6. 

  22. Gyford 1985, p7. 

  23. Gyford 1985, p8-9. 

  24. Gyford 1985, p9-10. 

  25. Bassett 1984, p96-7. 

  26. Gyford 1985, p10. 

  27. Gyford 1985, p33. 

  28. Patrick Seyd, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left, Palgrave 1987, p139. 

  29. Gyford 1985, p35. 

  30. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour, Verso 2001, p31.  

  31. Gyford 1985, p36-7. 

  32. Gyford 1985, p24-5. 

  33. Panitch and Leys 2001, p30. 

  34. Seyd 1987, p138. 

  35. Seyd 1987, p138-40. 

  36. As leader of the GLC, Ken Livingstone invited Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison to London in 1982, to the chagrin of the press and the Thatcher government, which responded by imposing an exclusion order on the pair and blocking the trip. Instead, Livingstone visited Belfast at Sinn Féin’s invitation. See Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA, Verso 2019, p158. 

  37. Lansley et al 1989, p52-3. 

  38. James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley, Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left (2nd ed.), Routledge 2018, p47. 

  39. Lansley et al 1989, p53. 

  40. Lansley et al 1989, p58-60. 

  41. Lansley et al 1989, p84-5. 

  42. ‘A Socialist GLC in Capitalist Britain?’, Capital & Class 18, Winter 1982, p121: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F030981688201800107 

  43. Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright acknowledged (in A Taste of Power: The Politics of Local Economics, Verso 1987, p13-14) that the resources of the GLC – with its £800m annual revenue budget – “paled before the scale of the economic crisis in London” as well as the resources of multinational firms that controlled “budgets the size of nations”. 

  44. Lansley et al 1989, p85-6. 

  45. Mackintosh and Wainwright 1987, p138. 

  46. Mackintosh and Wainwright 1987, p162. 

  47. Panitch and Leys 2001, p208. 

  48. Panitch and Leys 2001, p214. 

  49. Duncan and Goodwin 1988, p94. 

  50. Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy, Seagull Books 2009, p80. 

  51. Lansley et al 1989, p77. 

  52. Lansley et al 1989, p77-8. 

  53. Mackintosh and Wainwright 1987, p12. 

  54. Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2nd ed.), Verso 2017, p2. 

  55. Alan Freeman, The Benn Heresy, Pluto Press 1982, p131. 

  56. Tony Benn, Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977-80, Arrow 1991, p50. 

  57. Mervyn Jones, Michael Foot, Victor Gollancz 1995, p260-2. 

  58. Wainwright 1994, xvi. 

  59. Lansley et al 1989, p194. 

  60. For example, Daisy Payling has made the point that Sheffield, while still home to a significant BAME population in the 1980s, was less fertile territory for new-left social policies because of two main factors: its large white working-class majority – particularly compared to London – and the local left’s more workerist grounding in the trade union movement, itself centred around male-dominated heavy industry. See ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire: Grassroots Activism and Left-Wing Solidarity in 1980s Sheffield’, Twentieth Century British History Vol. 25 No. 4, 2014, p604-5: https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwu001 

  61. Eric Shaw, The Labour Party Since 1979: Crisis and Transformation, Routledge 1994, p31-3. 

  62. For a measured and detailed history of the 1980s Liverpool Labour council and its legacy, see Diane Frost and Peter North, Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge, Liverpool University Press 2013. 

  63. Willie Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism: Interpreting a Political Culture, Pluto Press 1993, p101. 

  64. During the row over Labour Party Black Sections, a National Executive Committee meeting scheduled to vote on the issue found itself confronted with two demonstrations outside - one in support of Black Sections, and one consisting of a group of Militant members protesting against them. See Andy McSmith, Faces of Labour: The Inside Story, Verso 1997, p231-2. 

  65. Lansley et al 1989, p36. 

  66. Peter Kilfoyle (in Left Behind: Lessons from Labour’s Heartland, Politico’s Publishing 2000, p1-2) argues that Liverpool Labour under Jack Braddock partly inherited its culture of “boss politics”, which was also heavily marked by religious sectarianism for many years, from the local Tory administrations that had preceded it before 1955. 

  67. Thompson 1993, p101-2. 

  68. Frost and North 2013, p88-9. 

  69. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press 1987, p153. 

  70. Peter Latham, Who Stole the Town Hall?: The End of Local Government As We Know It, Policy Press 2017, p2. 

  71. Latham 2017, p29-30. 

  72. According to one report, local authority spending on housing services in England was cut by over 50% between 2009-10 and 2017-18, with expenditure on cultural and leisure services down by 40%. See Neil Amin-Smith and David Phillips, ‘English council funding: what’s happened and what’s next?’, Institute for Fiscal Studies, May 2019, p6: https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN250.pdf 

  73. Doreen Massey, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, ‘And Now for the Good News’, in James Curran (ed.), The Future of the Left, Polity Press/New Socialist 1984, p218. 

  74. John Cowley, Adah Kaye, Marjorie Mayo and Mike Thompson (eds.), Community or Class Struggle?, Stage 1 1978, p5. 

  75. Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World, Zer0 Books 2013, p123-4. 

  76. Greig Charnock and Ramon Ribera-Fumaz, ‘Barcelona en Comú: Urban Democracy and “The Common Good”’, Socialist Register 2018, Merlin Press 2017, p196-7. 

  77. For all its apparent novelty, this is a well-established neoliberal tactic with a lengthy pedigree. For example, Melinda Cooper (in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Zone Books 2017, p189) discusses how Ronald Reagan’s ‘New Federalism’, in the name of decentralisation, “delegated the responsibility for implementing budget cutbacks onto state and local levels of government, leaving them with the ‘freedom’ to decide where the axe should fall”. 

  78. Sharzer 2013, p150. 


Author:

Tom Blackburn (@malaiseforever)

Beyond Westminster co-editor