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International Socialism, Spring 1985


Sue Cockerill

The municipal road to socialism


First published in International Socialism 2 : 26, Spring 1985, pp. 95–112.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For decades, local government was of little interest to anyone, even in the Labour party. Since 1979 the activities of local councils have been front-page news, especially in London. As I write, the press and television are speculating on the response by Labour councils to the implementation of rate-capping. Second only to the miners, Labour authorities have been widely seen as presenting the biggest threat to the Tories’ strategy, while individuals like Ken Livingstone and David Blunkett have emerged as national figures in the Labour party.

The reasons for this are bound up with developments in the Labour party and the progress of the Tory offensive. To write about what local councils see as their attempt to implement socialist policies is to raise all kinds of issues which are central to the debate on the way forward for the left in 1985.

First, a look at the background. On the one hand, the current confrontation between Thatcher and the self-styled socialist councils has arisen because of the government’s determination to cut public spending. Since 1980, first under Heseltine and then under Jenkin, measures have been taken to give central government more and more control over local authority spending and borrowing. This control has culminated in rate-capping – placing limits on the ability of specified councils to raise money by means of the rates.

The Heseltine measures of 1980, which introduced the ‘block grant’ system to penalise ‘overspenders’, have had very severe effects on councils, especially in urban areas. The government sets two figures for each authority: a target, and a GREA, that is, Grant Related Expenditure Assessment. The target figure is what central government wants the authority to spend. The GREA is what Whitehall calculates it ought to spend in order to provide a ‘standard’ level of services.

An authority can spend more than its GREA, but if it does, the extra spending will attract less and less grant from central government, since the formula is fiddled by Whitehall to ensure that more of it comes out of the rates. But this isn’t all. If the authority spends more than its target it incurs loss of the grant it was apparently originally entitled to, through the system of penalties. The penalties are so severe that ILEA for example stopped receiving grant altogether and relies solely on the rates. One thing the measures could not do was to stop councils funding extra spending from raising the rates. The government now wants to control this too, through rate-capping.

These very severe and contradictory measures have had the effect of breaking the connection between rates and expenditure, so that low spending, mostly Tory, authorities have also had to raise rates. The government has therefore had to fiddle its own figures extensively to produce a hit list of rate-capped councils which includes only two Tory ones.

The object of the rate-capping exercise is clearly to crush any pole of opposition to government policy by councillors and local authority workers. Local authority unionism is strong – in numerical terms and to some extent in terms of militancy – so an attack on local spending is a way of attacking workers’ organisation. Its strictly economic rationale is less easy to see: even the Financial Times questions the concern of the government with rates, as opposed to the grant element of local spending, since rates do not affect the public spending borrowing requirement. However, this is not the place to discuss the basis of the commitment of the Tories to privatisation and cuts in public spending, beyond the points which have already been made.

The other side of the confrontation – Labour councils which, verbally at least, have challenged the government – is the more interesting from our point of view. Their prominence arises from the changes which have occurred in constituency Labour parties since the mid-seventies, and which have been written about extensively in our publications.

The phemonemon of Bennism in the period after the Tory victory of 1979 was based on a political critique of the record of Wilson and Callaghan, and the entry of a layer of people into the local Labour parties who had been student activists (some of them ex-revolutionaries), and other relatively young, mostly white-collar or professional people, many in the public sector. These people saw themselves as radical in a sense which distinguished them from the more traditional Labour left. They were nearly all committed to the need for action taking place outside parliament to back up elected representatives, and they tended to see this action as being located in various ‘movements’, of which the trade unions were only one, and not always a favoured one at that.

These politics, combined with the relative ease with which activists came to dominate many local parties, made a crack at taking over the Town Hall a natural development for the newly-emerging Labour left. A big impetus to the idea of local ‘socialist’ councils presenting a real challenge to Thatcher came from Labour’s victory in the GLC election of 1981, and the subsequent election of Ken Livingstone as leader of the Labour group. Time Out talked excitedly of the size of the GLC budget, comparing it with the GNP of small countries, and it was clear that sections of the left, frustrated by Thatcher’s successes, saw the GLC as a real pole of attraction.

The successful challenge in the courts to the GLC’s central election pledge, the policy for London Transport, led to even greater emphasis on local elections. The focus came to be seen as the borough elections of May 1982, when the election of more ‘socialist’ councils would create a bloc to mount a much more effective challenge to the government. Let’s run London Our Way! was the headline of London Labour Briefing in April 1982, a publication which was also responsible for the famous ‘Fortress Islington’ banner heading. A campaign, Target ’82, was created with the aim of ‘electing Socialist Labour boroughs’.

In part of course, this was nothing new. Elections are the lifeblood of the Labour party, events to which all other activity is subordinated. As Herbert Morrison, leader of the London County Council in the 1930s and an important figure for some of the current local lefts, said, ‘elections keep us busy and out of mischief’. [1]

What has made the activities of the local councils seem so relatively important is the context in which they are happening, which is the present weakness of the working class. That weakness is crucial to understanding what has happened to the local councils and what is the likely outcome of the present battles with the government. And it is something to which the Labour left has a totally different approach from our own. This point will be elaborated in the course of an examination of the real record of the councils in office, and the debates which have occurred among the councillors and other Labour party activists.

The emphasis will be on London, partly because it is there that there are a large number of councils which see themselves as in the category of ‘radical socialist’ councils, and because so many are on the government’s hit-list for rate-capping. The debate on the Labour left has also focussed on the London experience.


The coverage of the media, especially the local press in London and the campaigns against ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone and ‘Red Ted’ Knight in some of the Fleet Street papers, has been aimed at the so-called ‘loony’ behaviour of the GLC and other councils. The most intense phase of this media attack has passed, partly because of Ken Livingstone’s rising popularity. Nevertheless, stories like the alleged banning of a racist squirrel from road safety cartoon films in Lambeth still make the national press.

The aim of this article is to look beyond the decisions which have been taken to fund particular campaigns and groups, which while crucial to the groups themselves are marginal to council spending as a whole and therefore to the mass of tenants, council workers and so on. Instead we shall look at the basic record of the councils in defending jobs and services. Most grants amount to a few thousand pounds, and even much more substantial allocations of money to open a gay centre in Smithfield, for example, while making a good headline for the Evening Standard, are insignificant beside the expenditure of the GLC on the fire service this year: £122 million, or refuse collection: £59 million. [2] Nevertheless some points have to be made about ‘looniness’.

First of all, in spite of our differences with the Labour lefts, we have to defend them against the kind of attacks which the media made on them. The press does not attack the councils for making cuts, or trying to weaken the trade unions, which is why we criticise them, but for funding lesbian self-defence groups, and anti-racist campaigns, or giving a platform to the Provisional IRA.

Having said that, it is clear that the net result of this funding in many cases is not to the benefit of the majority of women, gays, blacks or whichever group or movement is concerned. The funding tends to go to a narrow layer of unelected people. In the most extreme case, funds were allocated in a London borough with a large Turkish community for a mosque, which turned out to be a front for the Turkish fascists, the Grey Wolves.

Things like this can happen because the councils are not really rooted in the local area in the sense of having a strong, active base. Lacking funds which would make a major impact on the lives of those in the area they genuinely want to help, in terms of housing, transport, social services, employment, they decided to use what money they did have to make grants to self-appointed representatives of the ‘community’ or ‘minority’ groups. One Islington councillor who was very critical of the council from the left described committees giving away bits of money here and there as ‘a reformist’s dream’, where councillors had unreal discussions about saving factories. This fitted their notion of doings for or on behalf of people very well.

The problem was, that when these grants were ‘exposed’ in the press or when factories closed after being turned into co-ops with Council money, the councillors did not know what to do. In the case of ‘controversial’ grants, some councils have now become hyper-sensitive to the possible electoral consequences and shy away from supporting schemes they would once have championed, whether concerned with gays or the activities of the police in the miners’ strike. I picked up a copy of Islington Focus, the council’s answer to the rabid Islington Gazette, before Christmas and looked through it for coverage of the miners’ strike, finding only one story which was a ‘news’ report on a group of miners receiving money from trade unions in the council. The idea of taking miners ‘on the knocker’ for two by-elections in Islington was jettisoned on the grounds that the miners ‘had nothing to do with rate-capping’.

The inevitable result of lacking a real base, combined with an inability to implement the policies they were elected on, has been tokenism and a growing disillusionment on all sides.

In other words, ‘looniness’ is just a symptom of a much more, general problem which faces the councils. It was just the easiest target for the media to seize on. The real problem is, put simply, holding political office without the power to change society, a power we believe lies only with workers themselves.

Of course, every reformist government faces the same contradiction, and it is one which is especially sharp at times of capitalist crisis. The problem for councillors is magnified by the fact that local elected representatives are even weaker than MPs when their position is measured against the power of capital and the state.

The combination of enormous pretensions and pathetic results means that the councils invite ridicule. Unfortunately, the consequences of their failure are serious and cannot be easily brushed aside. What they do affects large numbers of workers, directly as their employees and indirectly as tenants and ratepayers.

The record

None of the councils have carried out the policy of ‘three noes’: that is, no cuts, no rent rises, no rate rises. As the government has tightened the screw, the left Labour councils have debated the options – and time and again, they have put off confrontation. They have done so by raising the rates, by raising rents, and by cuts. There has also been a good deal of creative accounting, or cooking the books, especially since it became clear that rate rises of the order that would be needed were just not politically feasible. With rate-capping, that option will no longer exist.

Why did the councils back down? How was it justified, and what effect has it had on the possibility of a decisive showdown over rate-capping?

The first critical moment for the municipal socialism project – with the exception of Lothian’s confrontation with the government in 1981 – occurred with the Law Lords’ ruling that the GLC’s Fares Fair policy was illegal. This policy formed the central plank of the manifesto on which Labour had been elected, and in the time of its operation was extremely popular. 63% of Londoners supported it, and a quarter of a million signed a petition organised by Fare Fight.

Yet, in spite of the commitment of London Transport workers and users to the scheme, the outrage that was felt at the interference of unelected judges (who never used public transport anyway) was not tapped. The Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign was dissolved in fiasco. The emphasis on the action of consumers – ‘the community’ – rather than transport workers, and the reliance on the House of Lords, was disastrous, as we argued at the time. [3]

The campaign did not organise for the kind of action which could have stopped the fare rises being introduced on 21 March 1982. There was a one-day strike on 10 March which was absolutely solid: all public transport was halted and the rush hours were chaotic. But the strike was held almost two weeks before the introduction of the rises, and so did not directly link the issue of redundancies, on which the strike was called, and the fare rises. The division between the workers and the users – whose action was supposed to unite in the fare refusal campaign – was reinforced by the local official of the TGWU, who threatened to call a strike only if workers were disciplined for refusing to accept the new fares, not over the new fares themselves.

On its part, the Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign relied on the promises of the union bureaucrats that the LT workers would not harass those who paid the old fares. They did not go out to the bus garages and the tube depots to argue for action, believing that consumer action could succeed with only the passive support of bus conductors and underground staff. Of course they wanted the unions to strike, but there was little understanding of the work that had to be done amongst the rank and file to win support for an all-out strike.

Equally, when the promised co-operation from transport workers didn’t happen, the temptation was to write off ‘the unions’ rather than to analyse why the campaign had relied on the bureaucrats and the Labour party rather than rank-and-file members of the transport unions. Getting a strike over issues like this is not guaranteed, but only won by building up confidence in the course of other struggles.

But Fares Fair was also important to the hard left in the London Labour party for a different reason. Their concerns were with the issue of accountability of the GLC councillors as well as the issue of the fares itself. The background was the fight nationally in the party against the right wing, for reselection, and for accountability of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the rank and file. The Bennite critique of the party’s previous history made it extremely important to demonstrate that things could be different.

Because the question of how far the ‘socialist’ councils are prepared to go into illegality is so crucial to their present dilemma over rate-capping, it is well worth examining the debates which went on amongst the left at this time. Being electoralists, of course, they focussed on the point at which GLC councillors, in contradiction to a decision taken at a Target ’82 meeting, voted through the budget. This decision was discussed by two councillors, Chris Knight and Valerie Wise, in London Labour Briefing:

The resolution [at the Target ’82 meeting] called on us – those who are on the GLC Labour Group – to go so far as to vote against the GLC budget rather than comply IN ANY RESPECT [emphasis in original] with the Lords’ ruling on fares. This advice wasn’t followed. When the budget vote was taken, the GLC group remained united as it has rarely been before. In effect we voted to keep within the law. [4]

Prior to this, they argued very clearly the case for disengagement – that is, refusing to stay in office if they can do nothing:

If what it means is that we are in OFFICE without POWER, are we not perhaps doing more harm than good? There are 330,000 people in London without a job. There are 300,000 on housing waiting lists. In the six months since Labour took over the GLC unemployment rose 10,000 a month, while house building has come to a complete stop.

Are we not clinging to the trappings of office, as all real power steadily drains from our hands? Is not this the pattern of all past Labour governments, played out on a small scale within our own ranks – as if nothing had been learned at all? And if our experience as a left wing GLC is to prefigure the future of the next Labour government, shouldn’t we be doing better than this?

To these rhetorical questions, revolutionaries would answer, yes, with the proviso that ‘real’ power has never been in the hands of these institutions at all, and to be elected to them on that basis is in itself fostering the illusion that radical change can be effected through them.

Needless to say, the conclusions reached by Knight and Wise are different. The justification for remaining in office has a radical gloss – the need to build a mass movement ‘which we will need to take us along the road to real power.’ Yet they immediately turn, not to the question of how this mass movement is to be built, but to elections!

The task is to stay in office, and ADD to our power by winning, first the Borough elections this May and, second, the general election in a year or two’s time. In the meantime before we come to the general election, we must have gathered into our hands a massive popular force.

The mass movement is clearly a mere adjunct to the electoral process, and apparently can be conjured up quite easily. There is no conception that the conditions for building that movement had already been undermined by the failure of the GLC Labour group to stand up for its own policy.

Ken Livingstone argued the case for the GLC remaining in office along lines which are both persuasive and familiar: that from the position of control of the GLC, it would be easier to mobilise a campaign against the government, and that the GLC and LT unions were totally opposed to the idea of mass resignations by the Labour group.

It is a persuasive argument, but it is so because it fits both the general ‘commonsense’ idea that it is elected politicians who can change things, not ordinary people themselves, and the particular situation of the downturn in working-class confidence and activity. In other words, while the general notion of the need for leaders to act on your behalf may still be there, in practice at certain times, workers themselves seize the initiative. The overall state of the movement, then and even more so now, means that that likelihood is reduced, though not eliminated.

The arguments of the GLC councillors in defence of their decision to abide by the Law Lords’ ruling aroused a flurry of debate. Some of the contributions of the Labour left were quite savage in their assessment of what staying in office would mean:

The policies that have been lost on school meals, the sale of council houses, rents and the cheap fares were the very heart of the manifesto, and should have been defended at all costs. What is left is the small print, tiny grants to the publishers of feminist and gay magazines and the establishment of committees on such matters as the rights of women and ethnic minorities. These are worthy causes, but there is nothing specifically socialist about them. Any regime of pragmatic liberals could do as much. [5]

The same writer continues:

‘So, we are in the familiar position of watching a Labour administration, elected on a radical manifesto, having its policies shot to pieces within a year of coming to power, clinging to office by its fingernails and justifying its surrender with the same weary arguments that any Labour council is better than a Tory/SDP one.’

Long after this, in October 1983, a Labour party member active in the Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign, summed up her feelings about the Fares Fair issue:

By the time the GLC had voted through the budget approving the fare rises, it was hard to see clearly any more who or what we are fighting ...; Now, at a time when unemployment in London is a major problem, and the GLC is working to combat it with the Enterprise Board ... they are simultaneously in the position of having laid off hundreds of bus conductors, with the almost inevitable prospect of presiding over far more serious layoffs in future. Packing the LT board is a good move, but ultimately, such strategic game playing cannot be successful when the government has the power to overturn the whole chessboard.

She adds:

‘Transport workers no longer feel certain who is to blame, and their morale has been weakened by the fact that the GLC have authorised cutbacks and redundancies.’ [6]

In spite of all this, it may be argued, the GLC has gone on to wage a highly successful propaganda campaign against the Tories’ plans for the abolition of the council. Ken Livingstone is widely popular in London: the results of by-elections to test support for the GLC were certainly a personal victory for him. Even a year before, the idea of placing him in the firing line of a vicious press campaign would have reminded everyone of what happened to Peter Tatchell.

Nor has Livingstone bought this popularity with diplomatic silence. He has continued to speak out on issues like the miners’ strike and also in support of Provisional Sinn Fein.

His popularity stems from a number of things. The fundamental one is that when people lack confidence to fight on their own behalf, they look to someone to do it for them. Livingstone, like Benn (and among miners and their supporters, Scargill), is a symbol of opposition to Thatcher. Thatcher’s apparent invincibility and the hatred she has generated among a substantial minority of the population, means that the slightest rebuff she receives is very important. Anyone who stands up to her – even Oxford dons and Clive Ponting – is likely to be popular among that section.

Ken Livingstone’s popularity is more seriously based than that of the Oxford congregation, of course. The issue of the fares and other things like the attempted banning of heavy lorries are widely seen as in the interests of the majority of Londoners. Reduced fares were one of the first things to improve in London for years, and in spite of what happened to them, Livingstone is identified as at least trying to do something for Londoners. But it must be said that the big increase in his popularity is more recent than that and comes perhaps more from his ability to put over anti-Thatcher ideas very ‘reasonably’ and to use the media attention focussed on him through the abolition issue with great skill.

Yet, fundamentally the criticisms stand. The GLC has not been able to carry out its election pledges. Its impact on housing and employment has been minimal. The effects of this would be felt much more clearly if the government had not decided to abolish it. The campaign against abolition has been fought on the basis of winning the widest possible support, and with an emphasis on ‘local democracy’ rather than jobs and services.

The record of the other inner London councils has also been a story of retreat from the words of defiance which were heard on all sides in May 1982. Services have by and large not suffered too badly, but the price has been paid in terms of quite massive rate rises, together with some rent rises. Rate bills have almost trebled in London since 1979. The councillors would of course argue that they had no other option given the government’s attacks on them via the penalty system. In fact about £70 of the average rate bill is directly attributable to the government’s block grant system. But it remains true that rate rises are cuts passed on in a different form, and in no way a progressive form of taxation.

The Vice-chair of finance in Brent argued that cuts represent a 100% attack on the working class, whereas rate rises aren’t paid by the unemployed and a high proportion of the rates come from better-off Tory rate-payers and business. But even he concedes: ‘it cannot be denied that rates raise the cost of living for working people, at least those in employment.’ Quite so; rates are not based on ability to pay, but on an out-of-date assessment of the rent that might be payable on a property. Flats and small houses are disproportionately affected. Businesses, on the other hand, pass on high rate bills in higher prices. In short, there’s nothing socialist about putting up the rates.

An examination of London boroughs’ plans last April showed that proposed rate rises ranged from 2% to 15.7%, with five boroughs going for rate increases of more than 14%. Three of these councils raised rents as well, hitting their tenants twice. Islington tenants on average paid £31.62 in rent and rates a week in 1984, against £28.84 the previous year – for the same services.

The councils and the unions

Islington Council, described ironically by its leader, Margaret Hodge, as ‘the second looniest council in London’, and one on which some of the biggest hopes had rested, involved itself in a dispute with its own nursery workers in 1984. The dispute was about pay and staffing levels, and the council’s refusal to concede the unions’ claim directly contravened its manifesto commitments, to say nothing of pretensions to be doing something about low-paid women workers and childcare provision.

The councillors also ignored resolutions passed in Labour party wards in support of the nursery workers’ claim. Councillors openly stated that if they could beat the nursery workers they would be able to win on decentralisation as well.

This dispute was not an aberration, but quite typical of a whole series of conflicts between the ‘socialist’ councils and their own workforces. Perhaps the most appalling of all was the action taken by Southwark in calling in the SPG during the residential social workers’ dispute in 1983. Other disputes have centred round new technology, in Sheffield, where the council tore up a model new technology agreement with NALGO, and in South Yorkshire. [7]

Decentralisation, which is closely connected with new technology, has been at the bottom of other disputes, as councils try to shift workers and resources around with no regard to conditions.

These disputes arise fundamentally because the councils are trying to squeeze more productivity out of their workers – just as bosses are elsewhere. The only difference lies in the justifications which are made – the need to give a better service to tenants and other users of council services. Given that funds to provide services are being relentlessly cut by central government, all that decentralisation can mean is that council workers’ conditions are attacked and tenants, for example, don’t have to travel all the way to the town hall to be told that they can’t get their repairs done.

For the councillors, it means that in spite of the lack of funds, they will be seen to be delivering on their promises. Partly this is the normal motivation of electoralism, partly it is the belief that the key to building a campaign against the government is to get public opinion or ‘the community’ on the side of the councils. Council workers are seen as only one group to be mobilised in this campaign; if by their actions in blocking the council’s plans they are jeopardising ‘public’ support, then they must be beaten.

In line with this policy, Inner London Education Authority manual workers were told in February 1982 that vacancies would not be filled for cleaners, school keepers and technicians before the beginning of the new financial year. This announcement was made without any consultation with the unions. Workers were expected to cover these vacant posts as well as sickness and holidays. Overtime was also stopped. Anyone who refused to co-operate with these ‘emergency’ measures laid themselves open to possible disciplinary action.

This was a taste of things to come, and a very clear illustration of a process which has occurred in the other Labour boroughs: government pressure on funds leads to attempts to squeeze more out of the workforce, provoking disputes. Councillors then denounce the unions as sabotaging their attempts to protect services.

In the case of ILEA, some of the bitterest conflicts have come over the compulsory transfer of teachers. This policy is justified by reference to falling school rolls, an argument which the Tory government uses to justify education cuts.

In reality, compulsory transfer means increases in class size and loss of subjects from the school’s curriculum. Teachers can be moved about at will, and demoted if there are no suitable posts in their present grade.

ILEA’s Labour group report in May 1984 claimed that redeployment was an alternative to redundancy, and that teacher numbers have been maintained at a ‘near constant’ level. In fact, between 1979 and 1983, 2,171 teachers’ jobs were lost in ILEA. Many of the schools hit by compulsory transfer are the most militant ones, something which leads to the suspicion that it is designed to weaken resistance to future cuts.

Another feature of ‘socialist’ ILEA has been its frequent attempts to divide manual workers from teachers, arguing that teachers are privileged and that manual workers will suffer if teachers don’t agree to transfer. At a Labour party London Region conference in March last year, the ILEA councillors succeeded in defeating an amendment to support teachers in their fight against compulsory transfer. They won the votes of the NUPE, GMWU and TGWU delegates by arguing that the cost of abandoning compulsory transfer would be borne by the manual workers. One NUPE delegate argued that the NUT claim was elitist and sectional, and that the teachers should drop the demand because they had ‘gained voluntary severance, and higher grades for supply teachers’.

Yet, the protestations of the councils that they want the support of the unions and that they work closely with them, is also true, at least at the level of the union bureaucracy. It is a bit like the social contract. Although the workers are under attack by the councils, and do fight back in many cases, they can be mobilised to support the councils when they are attacked by the government. Many council workers look to the Labour councillors for a lead over rate-capping.

This stems from the lack of confidence and the low level of rank-and-file organisation which exists throughout the working class at present, as well as from the lack of any ‘realistic’ political alternative to Labour.

It means that what the Labour councils do about rate-capping is vitally important to the level of struggle which can be mobilised. But equally, the effect of the day-to-day attacks from the councils on their best-organised workers is bound to undermine the attempt to defend local services against the Tories. For it is precisely those workers best able to defend their own interests who will be called on to defend the councils, but they are also the workers who are often seen by the councillors as the enemy within.

Liverpool – the exception?

Many on the Labour left, who might agree with much of the analysis here, would argue that the experience of Liverpool shows that there has been at least one Labour council which has taken on the Tories and won.

The Labour council elected in Liverpool in May 1983 took office committed to no cuts or rate rises. Its policies quickly set it on the path of confrontation with the government. The city was left without a budget in the spring of 1984.

The council successfully mobilised fifteen thousand workers for demonstrations in November and twenty thousand for a Day of Action on 29 March. Dockers, hospital workers and busworkers took part as well as council workers. The elections of May 1984 were fought as a referendum on the budget issue, and the result was a resounding endorsement of the policies of Militant to defy Jenkin and the law rather than make the terrible cuts – perhaps involving the loss of 5,000 jobs – the Tories demanded. It was an impressive performance, especially in the teeth of the media campaign.

Kinnock’s advice to the Labour council was the same as his advice to those on the present ‘hit-list’: ‘The Labour councillors would do best by the people of Liverpool to stay by every means in the position to which they have been elected so that they can mitigate, protect, dilute the effects of central government cuts.’

What happened after the election victory? The councillors sat tight and waited for Jenkin to visit Liverpool. Having started with a position of moving into illegality, they in practice put off setting a rate, and operated in a financial vacuum, hoping that Jenkin would compromise.

He did, but so did they. He offered £2.5 million to add to the city’s inner city partnership money, extended urban aid projects, and changed the rules about housing debt and repair costs. The council in turn reduced its budget through ‘creative accounting’ and raised the rates by 17%.

The Financial Times writer on local government assessed the settlement like this: ‘The fact is that Liverpool’s muscle won, but less than it might have done, and the government lost, but not as much as it might have done ...; For its part, Liverpool made substantial concessions too and any claims to the contrary are simply disingenuous.’ [8] He rightly saw the issue as not merely Liverpool itself, but the ‘way (the victory) was gained and where it leaves the government’s future relations with the high spending Labour-controlled local authorities.’

That is what is important about Liverpool. The concessions were wrung from the government by the threat of illegality, but in the end the strength of the mobilisation in Liverpool was not tested against the government. The settlement put off a decisive battle until later: in fact, until now. Creative accounting can only juggle figures, it cannot remove the expenditure or the need to fund it. In fact, Jenkin has just threatened to take control of Liverpool’s capital spending programme unless it cuts its plans to ‘overspend’ by £32 million on council house building. It may not be so easy to turn on the tap again and get the mass movement back on the streets.

The problem is that the lesson which should be learned from Liverpool – that the mass mobilisation in support of the council was really wasted in fudging a deal with Jenkin – is not the one which is being drawn by other Labour councils.

The fact is that it was the clear commitment of the Liverpool councillors to break the law to defend jobs and services which enabled them to mobilise support. To some Labour councillors the lesson appears to be that clever brinkmanship alone can make the government cave in.

Rate-capping – what are the prospects?

There is no doubt that the government is nervous about the possibility of large-scale defiance of the rate-capping legislation. The Financial Times reported:

The government is worried by the threat of disruption in the rate-capped councils and their supporters if no rate, unbalanced budgets or illegal action were to be jointly mounted and sustained. The administrative problems of dealing with such widespread disruption would be enormous ...; the Government’s main hope is that once the brinkmanship is over, all, or most of the councils involved will find ways to comply with the law. [9]

It is clear, then, that a firm united policy of defying the law would seriously rattle the government. In spite of the setbacks and retreats of the last three or four years, local Labour councils can still give the government a major headache. The time to fight should really have been when the attacks began, or to open a second front together with the miners (Liverpool’s ‘victory’ was won partly on the backs of the miners) but better late than never.

Unfortunately, the omens are not good. The tactic of not setting a rate has been adopted, which allows a long period of messing around in the hope that the government will concede. The options of refusing to pay debt interest – which would cause a certain amount of panic in the City and elsewhere (when the Liverpool crisis began, Japanese lenders immediately made emergency enquiries) or not funding the Metropolitan police, would have been much clearer tactics to gather support around.

In direct contrast to the emphasis placed by the Financial Times on the willingness to break the law as the thing which most bothers the government, Margaret Hodge argued:

A group of comrades in Hackney declared ... that to set a rate above the level dictated by the government is ‘a proclamation of illegal intent as soon as it is adopted’. It is difficult to see how such a step would move forward our battle against the Tories. It would immediately concentrate the mass media and the Tories on the issue of law and order rather than jobs and services. [10]

This is an extremely revealing comment. First of all, it presupposes that it is what the media will say which will be decisive, rather than what would galvanise active support. To Margaret Hodge it is the pressure of ‘public opinion’ which must deliver the results. Secondly, the tactic she does support – not setting a rate – will eventually lead into illegality.

The implication of this is that she does not really expect things to get to that stage.

The local government conference held in Birmingham at the first weekend in February also produced some pointers to the future. Some surprising support for Kinnock’s position of not breaking the law came from Ken Livingstone, and it was obvious that behind the facade of total unity, there were not all that many councillors who were ready to risk bankruptcy, surcharges and disqualification from public office.

Rumours of Lewisham having gone to negotiate secretly with Jenkin were strongly denied, but even if they were totally untrue, it is a fact that the councils are worried that one of them – especially those whose budgets are close to the government’s limit – will break ranks and compromise. As it is, they have already collectively met Jenkin, something which they originally opposed.

Some authorities – the GLC and ILEA, which already have rate-capping orders against them, are taking Jenkin to court to find out the basis of his calculations. It is barely credible that they should still be trying to use the courts after their own experiences since 1981, and the experiences of the miners and other unions over the last year.

All this adds up to the kind of fiddling while Rome burns which is least likely to build the support needed to really take on the Tories. The heart of that support must be the action of council workers themselves. Of course it cannot stop there, it must involve much wider sections of workers in the fight, but it will not be possible to mobilise those outside the councils if those in them do not seriously fight.


The Labour councils elected with ambitions so disproportionate to the strength of their base have suffered some inevitable consequences. But not all of what has happened has been inevitable. There was another path which could have been taken, and to some extent still could be. Instead of wriggling around trying to compensate for government cutbacks with a combination of rate rises and attacks on their own workforces, the councillors could fight the government.

It has been done before, in Poplar in the years after the First World War, when a council defied the law and got away with it. The councillors, faced with mass unemployment – councils were then responsible for paying the dole – refused either to cut the payments or to fund them by putting up the rates. Instead they stopped collecting money for the London County Council and the police. They also paid much higher wages to their workers than other councils and introduced equal pay for women. As a result thirty councillors went to prison, five of them women. They were supported by a massive popular movement: every arrest took place in front of enormous crowds, ten thousand in the case of the women’s arrests. After six weeks they were released, having refused to make any concessions or apologise for their contempt of court. In financial terms, they won major concessions from the government in the form of a bill which resulted in Poplar’s rates being lower in 1922-3 than they had been before the massive rise in unemployment.

The Poplar councillors did not come from nowhere. They were almost all people who had led struggles in the local workplaces and unions, in the suffrage movement, and against the war.

It is also important to place Poplar in the context of the Russian Revolution and the mass radicalisation which had occurred as a result. The period from 1919 through to 1921 was a period of mass working-class struggles. Just as Poplar’s victory occurred in the context of this struggle, so its ultimate defeat – over the higher wages it paid to its workers – happened in 1925 when the class as a whole had already suffered major defeats.

The present state of the working-class movement makes a Poplar much more difficult to envisage, but in addition the councillors who might lead such a fight are different from those in Poplar. They are, by and large, not people who have come to the council after leading struggles locally and building credibility in action. They are therefore not rooted in the area in the way that the Poplar councillors were.

What is more, their political starting point prevents them from building the kind of base which could enable them to take on the government. Instead of basing themselves on the strength of the best-organised workers in the councils, they have sought to undermine that strength. The justification is that they, the councillors, have been democratically elected and therefore represent the interests of the working class as a whole, while the unions represent narrow, sectional interests.

An attempt to argue this case was made by a Camden councillor, John Wakeham, who began an article in London Labour Briefing by saying how distressed he was to be accused by striking Camden workers in the Homeless Persons Unit of being ‘a manager organising a strike breaking force of other managers.’ He looked back at some disputes, including one in Southwark over the sacking of a worker who refused to be moved to Sidcup, and commented about an article in support of the worker in a previous Briefing: ‘It failed to explain in what Sense Southwark Nalgo were more representative of the working class than Southwark council.’

He went on to argue that many of the claims made by unions were not ‘class’ demands, and that the workforce was just as divided amongst itself by sex and grades as it was from the employers. ‘It does not help to see any dispute within a Labour council as an opportunity to take sides. They are usually symptoms of real tensions within the labour movement.’

He says more progress has been made by the council with the manual sector than with white-collar grades and ends: ‘Socialist councillors are often asked to put their money where their mouth is. It is time that socialist trade unionists working for socialist councils began to stop fighting every sectional, wage demand as if it were a class issue and began to develop a socialist egalitarian wage structure which abolishes the difference between manual and office workers and shows in practice that class identification which is often nothing but mouth.’

As a socialist trade unionist, I would read that as a direct message to the white-collar workers: forget your wage increase, because you are all overpaid anyway. It is highly convenient for a council which is trying to save money to be able to do it with the comforting thought that they are thereby narrowing differentials and being very egalitarian.

What it takes no account of is the fact that it is through the successful pursuit of sectional wage demands that the strength and confidence is built up which allows workers to fight on the class-wide issues. Councillor Wakeham and many others in the Labour party should ask themselves why it was that years of sectional wage demands culminated in the political mass strikes against the Tory Industrial Relations Act and the two victorious miners’ strikes, in 1972 and 1974, the second of which did precisely what the ‘socialist’ councils aim to do: bring down a Tory government. In contrast, years of Labour governments committed to the same kind of ‘egalitarianism’ in the name of the social contract, culminated in a vicious Tory government and a series of terrible defeats for workers.

For Labour party members, the focus on elections and holding electoral office always takes precedence in practice over everything else, in spite of the commitment to ‘extra-parliamentary’ action. Many socialists inside the Labour party have been disillusioned again by the behaviour of their representatives on councils as well as in parliament. But because of the weakness of workers at the moment they cannot yet bring themselves to abandon the project and place their energies where they should lie: building at the base, in the workplaces, where ultimately the only effective resistance to the government will come.

* * *


1. Quoted in B. Donoughue and G.W. Jones, Herbert Morrison, p. 75.

2. Financial and General Statistics, CIPFA.

3. See Socialist Review, April 1982.

4. London Labour Briefing, editorial, March 1982.

5. London Labour Briefing, April 1982.

6. London Labour Briefing, October 1983.

7. For details of these disputes, see Socialist Review, October 1983 and December 1983.

8. Financial Times, 17 July 1984.

9. Financial Times, 5 February 1985.

10. London Labour Briefing, December 1984.

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