To a Comrade: Ted Knight, the Labour Left and Local Government

How can Ted Knight's strategic proposition of rooted Labour Party units working in tandem with local communities & workers to challenge the capitalist order inform our strategies today?

15 min read

On 29 March, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, comrade, friend and giant of the labour movement, Ted Knight died at his home in Gipsy Hill, South Lambeth. What follows is too late for an obituary. Nor is it intended as a comprehensive account of the twists and turns of a political life which spanned nine decades. It is, instead, something of a celebration: an attempt to think through some potential legacies of Ted’s decades of activity as we move through a transitional moment in the history of the Labour Left, against the backdrop of an oncoming global depression, a deepening series of political ruptures and an ever further rightwards-tacking national Party.

Red Ted

Ted will, rightly, be best remembered for his time as the Leader of Lambeth Council from 1978 to 1985. A bogeyman of the Tory Press as they ramped up their assault on the institutional outposts of socialism across the 1980s, ‘Red Ted’ gained his greatest national prominence for his leading part in the ‘rate capping rebellion’, though had gathered a fair share of ire in the years before. Be it his administration’s innovative anti-racism work, their institution of lesbian and gay committees, Lambeth’s twinning with Nicaragua, or in his description of the Metropolitan Police as an ‘occupying force’ in the aftermath of Brixton’s 1981 uprisings and refusal to hang the Union Jack (‘the apron of the butcher’) from the Town Hall, Ted’s administration offered little in the way of compromise to the hostility of an ascendent New Right.

The rate capping rebellion was the culmination of a strategy of resistance waged against Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to ‘cap’ the amount local administrations could raise in taxes. In so doing, Thatcher hoped to remove a final defence against the deepening cuts and restrictions her government inflicted on local (predominantly Labour) inner city administrations. By refusing en masse to set a rate-capped budget in March 1985, it was argued Labour administrations could resist, and shift a situation of deepening crisis and atomisation for local government back onto central government and the banks. In concert with the unfolding miners’ strikes, community support and broader trade union activity, it was hoped such resistance might even bring down the government. In Autumn 1984, Ted proposed, and the Labour Party Conference passed, a motion backing the strategy. By the Winter some 30 local administrations were signed up to withhold setting budgets. As the spring approached, one-by-one the Councils dropped out, and by mid-March 1985, only Lambeth and Liverpool held out. Isolated, and despite appeals to the High Court, the rebelling councillors were fined and barred from office and district auditors sent in.

By 1985, Ted had already spent forty years in the labour movement. Born in 1933 he had campaigned for Attlee in 1945, and joined the Labour Party in 1949, at what he called ‘very active’ but ‘not particularly complementary period’ of Labour government.1 Ted was expelled from the Party in 1954, at the age of 21, for his association with Trotskyists gathered around the Labour League of Youth and his organisation of a meeting calling for the abolition of the monarchy. He spent the next sixteen years working as an organiser for trade unions and the Socialist Labour League. Despite reportedly large files on his activity, and his unrepentant affirmation of his enduring Marxism, he was readmitted to the Party — after several attempts and an interview with an NEC panel — in 1970. He became the Chair of the Norwood Labour Party the next year, a Lambeth Councillor in 1974 and Leader of Lambeth Council four years after that.

Ted, with many others, spent the next decade invigorating the fortunes and interests of the Labour Left in local government. To these ends, Ted recalled working to build and hold a base in the local party, to integrate that base with the wide-ranging community politics and trade unionism of an extraordinary decade of class struggle and, in concert with a network of Labour Left activists across London, to take that base into the Town Hall. By the close of the 1970s, and despite the increasing rightwards drift of the national Party under Jim Callaghan’s leadership, a vibrant socialist Labour presence had emerged in cities like London. Alongside more traditional Labourist currents, this Labour Left incorporated a new generation of activists mobilised around movements for tenant and industrial control and the anti-colonialist, anti-racist and feminist struggles of period.

Often, the historic defeats of the 1980s are viewed with nostalgic fatalism: as the heroic or inevitable dissipation of the post-war social democratic consensus — the ‘Forward March of Labour Halted’.2 On the few occasions in which they are examined in detail, it is the particularities, and terminal points — the miners’ strike or ‘Red Ken’s’ successes at the Greater London Council — that have dominated. What slips from such accounts is the texture and struggles of the wider historical conjuncture. For Pat Devine, the 1970s and early 1980s can be read as a period in which ‘two alternative post-social democracy trajectories presented themselves: a move in the direction of economic democracy, building on the gains of the long boom, as a transitional stage towards socialism; or a move to neoliberalism, reversing the post-1945 gains’.3 If in Lambeth and beyond the struggles of the period were likely too diverse and messy to be bound neatly within such binary parameters, the period’s sense of historical opening is worth recalling. Forty years into neoliberalism’s reign, in the face of a rightward drifting national Party and an ascendant New Right, Ted continued to offer articulate and reasoned reminders of the historical contingencies of defeat and some of strategies that featured in the struggle for an alternative trajectory. Many of these struggles are still our own.


It was one of the joys of knowing Ted to feel connected to these historical continuities and our recollections of them will be all the weaker for his passing. My knowledge of Ted, however, belongs to the past half-decade, as we sunk our energies into nurturing the opportunities of a renewed socialist presence within our local Labour Party brought about by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. If these opportunities were opened by Corbyn’s leadership, they were accomplished by the hard work of local activists, Ted foremost among them. At the time of his death, Ted was the Chair of our Gipsy Hill Labour Party branch, the Chair of our local Momentum/Labour Left group, Lambeth’s trade union Local Campaign Forum delegate and the Labour Group Observer and joint Trade Union Liaison Officer for our now decidedly Left-leaning Dulwich and West Norwood Constituency Labour Party. These responsibilities fell outside the work Ted continued to do with the Croydon Trades Council and their excellent Croydon Assembly events, his activism with Lambeth Pensioners Action Group and his Unite retired members’ branch.

For an ascendant Labour Left locally, Ted’s energies and commitments were essential. He knew the Party machinery, he knew how to organise, and he knew how, when and where to push. As Ted once recalled his influence on his close ally, branch-mate, and (for a time) fellow Lambeth councillor Ken Livingstone across the 1970s, ‘[a]t first, [Ken] was somewhat naive…what I was able to bring about was an understanding that if you are going to succeed, then you had to build a base; you had to build allies; and you had to organise to win’.4 He taught us these lessons also.

But, Ted was no technocrat. He was a committed Marxist and international socialist, whose years in the movement left a clear and indelible mark on his view of the Party, not as an end, but as a means. Ted knew not only how, but why to build the Left within the Party. From his chairing of local branch meetings through to his interventions at General Committees, campaign rallies and organisational meetings, Ted’s inimitable oratory left no doubt as to his vision of the Party: not as a narrow electoral machine, but a vehicle for the advance and empowerment of working people, for the overthrow of capitalism. For a new generation, entering the Party for the first time, and an older one returning to Labour Party activity after decades of purges and the sharp rightwards reorientation of the local Party since the 1990s, Ted’s stark and enduring clarity on this matter offered a vibrant and inspirational reminder. For the Labour Right, Ted’s return and political commitments, like those of the broader Left, were unconscionable—a return of the repressed, to be met by varying degrees of deflection, smear, and bureaucratic wrangling.

It was with a sense of burning and enduring commitment that Ted saw the past years unfold with profound excitement at the prospect of a Labour Government led by his old friends and comrades. Jeremy Corbyn served as Ted’s agent in an unsuccessful Parliamentary contest for Hornsey in the 1979 General Election. Ted had an arguably closer bind with John McDonnell, who — as Head of Finance and Deputy Leader in ‘Livingstone’s‘ GLC — had continued to advocate for the GLC’s adherence to the rate rebellion, in the face of Livingstone’s deepening hostility to the campaign and rather acrimonious split with Ted.

This history, his solidarities and the excitement of the past five years never stopped Ted’s critical faculties, nor his firm belief in the impossibility of socialism from on high. Like so many of us he had huge hopes that Corbyn’s victory might open up a substantial space for the Left, but was under no illusions that it would open up a new period of intensified struggle. As the 2019 General election campaign unfolded, Ted was one of the first I spoke to, to see the danger of the constant unrolling of policy from above. He was critical of what he perceived as too-frequent back-pedalling, critical of the vacillations on Europe, and critical of the increasing entrenchment in parliamentary manoeuvres. Above all, though, he was critical of an associated failure to challenge the clinging husk of Blairite local government administrations, waving through a decade of austerity measures to top off the decades of acquiescence to — and entanglement with — private sector interests.

Moving forwards: The world turned upside down

Ted died in the last week of Corbyn and McDonnell’s leadership of the Party. So often, over recent years, he had talked of the need to secure a socialist Labour government in his contracting lifetime. There was a sense of morbidity in this statement which, set off against Ted’s continuing vivacity, struck to the core of his dry wit. The tragedy of unrealised dreams aside, Ted’s politics—like those of Lenin, whose portrait continued to hang on the wall of Ted’s office—were rooted in an alertness to the twists and opportunities of historical contingency. As such, when we last spoke in the week leading up to his death, Ted was already turning to how best to ensure that the demands and horizons opened up by the COVID-19 crisis were given enduring form. It is with these horizons in mind—as our entry into a global depression is accompanied by an unconscionable blend of acquiescence, opportunism and factionalism on the part of the Party leadership — that it seems worth turning to what we might learn from Ted’s legacy, as a Labour Left enduring its own uncertainties and institutional crises.

In this sense Ted’s historical reminders and enduring commitments can, I think, be seen to offer two key lessons in facing down our current moment. The first, is the necessity to situate the crushing defeats of the past months, within a historical continuum: and in particular within the contexts of the four-decade evisceration of the trade union movement, the severing of Labour’s roots in communities up and down the country and the decimation of the local government administrations’ willingness to offer anything but green lights to the scorched earth logic of neoliberal capitalism.

Only within this wider terrain can we begin to measure the undoubted failures of the past five years against the successes. For, any reasoned reckoning must also note that the Labour Party’s rebirth under Corbyn remains—or might still prove to remain—one of the more remarkable political projects of recent decades. In a mere half-decade, and against the backdrop of atomisation and repeated defeats, we saw the awakening and connection of socialist activists across multiple generations across the country. We saw the transformation of an ailing, technocratic, electoral vehicle into the largest democratic party in Western Europe. And we saw the emergence of a policy platform that began to challenge this country’s place in the neo-liberal world order. So great has been the sense of defeat, that it is easy to lose sight of the hopes it crushed: and that brief moment in 2017, when Corbynism really did seem ready to smash through the crumbling edifice of what Mark Fisher so aptly termed ‘capitalist realism’. It is our responsibility as a movement to recover that explosive sense of possibility, to detonate it and to build a new world on the rubble.

To do so—and to avoid the dual temptations of defeatism and voluntarism—it is essential we focus our efforts and strategy upon where we might have agency and lasting structural force. And, it is here—defeats notwithstanding—that I would like to raise Ted’s historic and continued focus on the importance of local government. For, if the hopes for electing a socialist Labour Government, which buoyed us over past years are now in fast abeyance, so too is the need for a serious focus on the local ever more apparent. COVID-19 has revealed the murderous effects of neo-liberal governance: transforming our care homes into death traps and local government administrations into the frontline of an emergency response they are ever less capable of adequately confronting. As we pass, therefore, from a decade of austerity and falling living conditions, into a global depression, a Labour Left worth its name cannot sit back and wait for national shifts or deferred returns. Rather, we must begin to ensure that the deepening needs and demands of local residents and campaigners, who have for too long been met with condescension and managerialist excuses by Labour administrations serving as the handmaidens of austerity, are not only heard but transformed into programmes for local government.

The example of Lambeth here is instructive, but by no means unique. Across past years we have campaigned and built a strong Labour Left presence in two out of three constituencies, and even secured a socialist MP in one (no mean feat in the borough that Tony Blair himself once described as more New Labour than New Labour). But we have, too often, remained powerless to challenge a Labour Council firmly entrenched in the neoliberal model.5 Not only were the Left of the Party systematically excluded from running as, or even voting to select, their Councillors, but as the Party and voters of Lambeth became increasingly enthused by the possibilities of a Corbyn government, the Council tacked firmly in the opposite direction: investing millions of pounds in schemes to demolish hundreds of homes at Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill Estates, against the wishes of the residents and Labour Party policy. Just years after extensive — and costly — library closures, meanwhile and in the build-up to a 2019 election in which Labour promised a reversal of cuts to early years provisions, Lambeth’s residents were informed that the axe would now swing on the borough’s children’s centres. If councillors wore badges declaring they were at ‘Breaking Point’ while voting through cut budgets, they stubbornly refused to countenance touching their reserves, or to respond with anything but irate consternation to the campaigners and residents, in the Labour Party and beyond, on whose backs the real breaking point is falling.

To change this situation, as Ted continued to advocate we must, we need to transform our conceptions of the Labour Party: and transform our local Party units and administrations into hammers with which to break local government’s deep-rooted complicity in the neoliberal order. We must build upon the achievements of the Corbyn years, whilst rejecting the shortcuts by which Corbynism—often quite understandably—attempted to reverse decades of decline. We must acknowledge that breaking the grip of private interest, property developers and the professional managerial class, will encounter bitter and organised resistance and we must be ready to fight tooth and nail, both within the party and our wider communities. This means we must extend rather than retreat from the political and elected positions we have gained in the past five years, but also learn from previous experiences how to use those positions to drive forward a politics which is capable of working both within and against the state, to weaken capital and strengthen working class power.

In so doing, we must recognise that the solution to Blairite managerialism in local government is not Corbynite managerialism. As such, and notwithstanding the achievements and policy offerings of past conferences, we must remember that re-brandings of Momentum, an interminable focus on National Committee slates, and neat policy offerings from a new range of ‘left wing think tanks’ are not going to bring us much closer to socialism. Instead, we must take seriously the task of transforming local Labour parties into incubators and cradles of socialist conscience and policy. As Ted so often observed, this is not done by a programme of policy from above. It must be achieved by taking seriously the knowledge, experience and struggles of working people: and working out means of transforming those knowledges, experiences and struggles into the platform of socialist Labour Party units, rooted in their communities and ready to take on the power of Town Halls.

As Ted put it, to a group of local comrades, at an event last summer:

When we talk to these councillors now, we’re not asking them to go to jail. We’re not asking them to be surcharged, because it can’t happen. What we are asking them, is to work with us to build a unity in our local communities and with the Party to bring this government down. They are not willing to do that because of course they are administering the austerity programme of that government. And many of them are willingly doing so.

We have got to stop that. So, we’ve got to build now comrades. We have to work to build alternatives: to have councillors that are going in there in the next period in order to change that situation. Because one of the things we hear is people weren’t very enthusiastic in the local elections. Well why would you be enthusiastic for that crowd sitting in Lambeth Town Hall. Of course, you wouldn’t be enthusiastic…

In other words, the situation is that that is Labour in government for working people. We have to see that; we have to understand that; and we have to change it. Because if we are going to build this new society comrades, we have to do it at local level too. You can’t do it from above and just issue declarations. You have actually got to be working with local communities, building up a programme. Getting their involvement in it. Because working people actually have experiences of living in the area. They know the problems. They know how many schools are needed. They know how the hospitals are wanted. They know what doctors are needed. They know all of those things. All they want to do is discuss it with you. They don’t want to be told that it will be in our manifesto. What they want to know is: are my family going to come out of it secure with a better form of living. We can do that comrades, and I believe we are taking the first steps now here in the local Labour Party towards those ends, and hopefully, with Jeremy and the comrades in the national party, we can do it nationally as well.”6

If, in the face of the tectonic shifts of our present moment, it is clear that any socialist initiative on the part of our national Party will need to be deferred, so too is it clear that the local can wait no longer. Notwithstanding past defeats, it was Ted’s steadfast and continuing strategic proposition of rooted Labour Party units working in tandem with local communities and workers to challenge the capitalist order, that I believe might offer a vital sphere of focus for the Labour Left at this moment. In working towards this task, Ted will be sorely missed.

  1. As Ted observed, against the ‘rose tinted spectacles’ often applied to the Attlee Government in recent times, it was these final years of his administration which saw ‘support for the USA in the Korean war…the conduct of the colonial struggle and oppression in Malaysia and Cyprus…[the beginning of a] British rearmament programme, …[and the] introduction of caps on National Health expenditure and introduction of prescription charges for dentures and spectacles’. Ted Knight, Talk given to a fundraising meeting, Lambeth, 15th June, 2019. 

  2. Eric Hobsbawm, “The Forward March of Labour Halted”, 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture, reproduced in Marxism Today, (September 1978), 279-286 

  3. Pat Devine, “The 1970s and After. The political economy of inflation and the crisis of social democracy”, Soundings, vol 43, (March 2006), 52. 

  4. Quoted in, Andrew Hosken, Ken. The Ups and Downs of Ken Livingstone, (London: Arcadia Books, 2008), 23-24. 

  5. In the build-up to the 2018 local government elections, Lambeth Local Campaign Forum used every trick in the book to bar socialists from standing as, or even selecting, their councillors. The Labour Group removed the whip from the one councillor who had the temerity to challenge the Council’s reprehensible — and profligate — library closures. The recommendations derived from a community conference organised by local Momentum activists to feed into the local manifesto were roundly ignored. 

  6. Ted Knight, Talk, op. cit. As Daniel Frost has observed, the shifts to the legal capacities of councils to resist Central Government impositions may have lessened the efficacy of 1980s strategies of resistance, but should not be used as a strawman to distract us from the substantial political and economic capacity for local councils to mount resistance, even in the face of brutal cuts. 


Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann (@benwwk)