Today’s fight for control of the Labour Party doesn’t look all that different from the battles that raged in the 1980s. The rhetoric of Deputy Leader Tom Watson could have been taken word-for-word from Neil Kinnock’s “modernizing” crusade against the far left three decades ago.
After Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory, many on the Left believed that the parliamentary struggle was, at least temporarily, a dead end. Throughout the 1970s, the Labour left had been constantly frustrated as the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan cabinets either ignored or circumvented their policies.
Activists began to look to local government, forging a municipal socialist strategy that aimed to redefine the relationship between local communities and governments, creating sites of resistance to encroaching monetarism. They sought to undo the paternalism associated with state relations and institute more responsive and democratic community development.
The south London borough of Lambeth found itself at the center of a fight between the Labour left’s new strategy and the party’s traditional approach of wedding itself to existing government structures.
Depending on the narrative, Lambeth was either a heroic Labour stronghold resisting Thatcherism or a hopeless and corrupt lost cause launched by an out of touch “loony left.”
As such, the small London district provides a case study in alternating strategies that resonate with today’s debate over the party’s future.
The War on Local Government
Margaret Thatcher earned many enemies. Her war on the trade unions and the welfare state is well-documented, but less so the far-reaching reforms she made to local government in the United Kingdom.
Prior to Thatcher’s counterrevolution, local government enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy. Charged with providing local social services, building and maintaining amenities such as libraries and sports facilities, collecting the trash bins, and ensuring the local population has housing, councils and municipal bodies controlled large budgets and acted as local centers of political power.
As Thatcher secured her stranglehold on government and as the Labour Party fell into decline, many socialists saw local government as a bulwark of resistance.
But Thatcher’s plan to remake Britain decisively in the interests of capitalists required centralization on a scale not seen before. Within the first six years of her government, twenty-six laws and legislative amendments that restricted the autonomy and scope of municipal governments were passed.
A number of local councils fought back. Lambeth Council — under the control of the Labour left — went further than most.
Lambeth, at the time, was home to around 245,000 people. At the north end of the pie-shaped borough sits Waterloo station and the traditionally working-class neighborhood of Vauxhall; in the center is the multicultural Brixton; and to the south Streatham, which once boasted the busiest shopping stretch in London.
At one point or another Charlie Chaplin, C. L. R. James, Olive Morris, Darcus Howe, David Bowie, and Prime Minister John Major called Lambeth home. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone, too, cut his teeth there in local government in the 1970s.
Because Lambeth has always been poor, pro-Labour, and, starting in the 1950s, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country, the Conservatives have always hated it. They hated it even more in 1978, when the electorate voted for a left-wing local administration led by Ted Knight.
Knight, a Trotskyist in the Gerry Healy organization (the Socialist Labour League) in the 1950s, came from a working-class background. He developed into a passionate public speaker and became as iron-willed as Thatcher.
In 1979, his council organized the first demonstration against her, in which thousands of people marched from Waterloo to protest outside Parliament. Knight and his allies talked about class war, socialism, and strike action.
The activity in Lambeth, unsurprisingly, drew the ire of centrist Labour MPs in the House of Commons. The party was eyeing a return to government and desperate to disassociate itself from political radicalism.
Peter Mandelson, one of the chief architects of New Labour, served as a councilor in the borough from 1978–1982 and was shocked by the uncompromising views of local party activists. “I remember being warned by a local Labour activist as we canvassed in a local estate one Sunday morning that we must at all costs avoid ‘compromising with the electorate.’”
What so horrified Mandelson included the Left’s understanding of criminals as victims of the capitalist system, the police as agents of repression, and riots as popular uprisings against injustice.
After stepping down as a councilor, Mandelson left the borough to work for Labour leader Neil Kinnock before joining Tony Blair’s Third Way movement.
It isn’t a surprise the local Labour Party had those views. Lambeth’s black population suffered greatly under Thatcher. The police were unrestrained and routinely harassed young black men, beating and arresting them. Police officers so dominated Brixton’s street corners that, in Knight’s words, it “looked like an invading army.”
An explosive riot in 1981 burned down whole swathes of central Lambeth. A report largely blamed the police and called on them to work with, not against, the local community.
The police promised to change. But just four years later, they shot and crippled a woman in her own house as they looked for her son. More rioting followed.
Around the same time, Lambeth defied Thatcher by refusing to implement the Rates Act. Passed in 1984, the new law allowed the central government to limit the amount of taxes that local governments could raise. The Conservatives targeted several councils that they accused profligate spending. In Lambeth, the new restrictions would have meant £13 million in cuts.
Since it followed the Brixton riots, this vindictive cut seemed designed to halt local efforts to rebuild the community and invest in much-needed services, especially considering that the government-commissioned report recommended more, not less, investment in the area.
On a national level, this marked the first time since 1601 that local government hadn’t been allowed to set their own budgets. Lambeth leaders, along with Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell (the current shadow chancellor) at the Greater London Council (GLC), joined a campaign to resist rate-capping. The council and local Labour Party organized protests and public meetings to discuss the fightback and formed an alliance with trade unions.
Despite an initially strong campaign, other local authorities fell away as their Labour councilors buckled and voted to accept the government rate level. Only Lambeth and Liverpool, at that time dominated by the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, struggled on.
They were meant to set their budgets in April, but both held out until July. Liverpool succumbed to pressure just two weeks before the Labour left lost the council vote to set the agreed budget.
But the resisters felt vindicated because just days before the vote they were informed that another £4 million had been found for Lambeth. Coupled with a grant from the GLC, which Thatcher would soon close, no cuts were made in Lambeth.
However, punishment came swiftly. Thatcher’s government reforms meant that local councilors worked under intense oversight and were held personally accountable in ways that MPs never were before. The thirty-one Lambeth councilors who had voted against setting a budget were personally fined by the district auditor — between them a total of £127,000 — and barred from office.
But Knight’s campaign had electrified the local movement — over three hundred meetings were held across Lambeth, unions carried out strike actions, and, during an occupation of the town hall, protesters raised the red flag. While an isolated borough couldn’t beat Thatcher’s government, it did mobilize voters for the next local election.
After the unelected district auditor removed the Labour councilors, the party increased their share of the vote, dashing the hopes of the local Tories who thought they could profit from the political chaos wrought by Westminster.
After the election, the Local Government Committee — a delegate body of local members — set up several working groups to develop policy on key issues: housing, welfare, amenities, and others. Their local manifesto was a model of party democracy.
When the new councilors arrived at Brixton’s town hall, they found pages of the manifesto stuck on the walls of their departments, reminding them of their commitment to implement the left policies they had been elected on.
Kinnock Against the Left
After the miners’ defeat, Kinnock consolidated power in the Labour Party and moved to purge its left. Obsessed with opinion polls, the new right in Labour posed this as a key step on the road to electability.
This integrationist strategy — which would see the party embrace much of Thatcher’s model — ran up against the transformative fight from below that groups like Lambeth’s council believed could set an example for the party.
Despite the media’s witch hunt and the growing intolerance from within Labour’s ranks, Lambeth carried on with its strategy of resistance. After Knight was ousted, Linda Bellos assumed leadership of the council.
Bellos was an easy target for the right-wing media. An outspoken black woman and the first out lesbian leader of a local authority, she became synonymous with the tabloids’ particular fixation: equal opportunities and political correctness.
It didn’t help that Lambeth was experimenting with various affirmative action programs. Some of these had already been drafted in Knight’s era, but Bellos pursued them further.
The pressure on Lambeth grew, and the central government imposed more austerity. This time around, however, there was no local movement that could mobilize opposition. In the wake of the defeated miners’ strike and with the Labour Party leadership’s paranoia about the role of the hard left growing, militant councils and municipal socialism found less and less sympathy.
In 1986, Bellos capitulated and brought in a budget that saw £60 million slashed from local services. She argued that the budget protected the most needy and only cut from those sectors that could afford it, but the local Labour Party’s left wing disagreed.
In 1988, internal arguments reached their boiling point, and Bellos resigned. This created a temporary space for Kinnock supporter Dick Sorabji to take over. Fortunately, he only lasted a year and was replaced the previous chief whip Joan Twelves, who became leader, though with the backdrop of increased uncertainty within Labour.
Kinnock had moved into overdrive against the party’s left, purging militants and interfering in local party decisions over candidates. In 1989, a by-election in Vauxhall saw a popular local black candidate, Martha Osamor, replaced from on high by Kate Hoey, a Kinnock supporter.
Many in the local party were furious, but Kinnock and the Labour apparatus were adamant that the self-organized Black Sections, of which Osamor was a leading member, created problems for Labour, and any candidate backed by them was persona non grata.
Kinnock Wins . . . Then Loses
The Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) disciplined Lambeth Labour, terrified of losing another general election because the party appeared too much under the “loony left’s” control. The NEC shut down the Local Government Committee, which acted as a crucial link between rank-and-file party members and the councilors. In 1990, Labour HQ went as far as to write the borough’s local manifesto and impose it from above.
Relations between the borough and the party were tense, and all Labour’s right-wing needed was something to maneuver against the Left. When the council refused to collect the hated Community Charge (popularly known as the Poll Tax) and opposed the first Gulf War — leading to a rowdy public meeting that saw a fight break out in the audience — the NEC suspended Twelves and eleven other councilors.
The result was a weak Labour administration that limped along until the 1994 local elections, when the party lost overall control. The era of radical Lambeth ended, not because of Tory resistance, but because of the Labour leadership’s quest to crush dissent.
Ironically, Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election just before Twelves’s final suspension from the Labour group. All of his witch-hunting and attempts at reform couldn’t win him Downing Street, but he did leave the party hollowed out and ready for a takeover by Blairite reformers.
Labour controls Lambeth today, with fifty-nine of sixty-three council seats. But many of these belong to Blair’s Progress organization — a party within a party — and keep themselves busy imposing Tory cuts, trying to close libraries, and sacking hundreds of local workers.
They point to the “disaster” of 1980s Lambeth to justify their compliance, preferring the role of respectable politician to that of hopeless class warriors — like Knight or Bellos.
Lambeth finds itself in a period of rapid transition today. Once associated with racial tension and social deprivation, the borough is now a popular destination for young professionals and emboldened landlords.
Gentrification has torn through, and housing estates are being demolished to make way for expensive flats.
Certainly, the 1980s’ left councilors made mistakes; many of them had little local government experience and were challenged to maintain consistency after the council leadership was removed twice in six years.
But what differentiated them from the current crop of electeds is that they fought to oppose the emerging austerity consensus, using their council positions to mobilize broad social forces. When faced with cuts, they organized meetings with local residents and unions to discuss what to do — a marked difference from today’s officials, who simply impose the cuts they want to make.
Thatcher’s reforms ultimately limited local governments’ ability to resist Westminster’s plans. Although Blair removed councilors’ personal financial liabilities, central government has maintained the right to remove them from office if they are found setting illegal budgets. The Cameron-Clegg coalition government used these powers to oust Lutfer Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets in East London, over allegations of fraud and misconduct.
But with Jeremy Corbyn’s election, a new mood is beginning to grip Labour locals. His leadership has reignited the old battle between the Left’s transformative agenda and the Right’s integrative approach. Groups like Momentum hope to provide an alternative voice for grassroots labor movements.
The 1980s showed that coordinated resistance — led by local activists willing to see it through to the end — is needed. Otherwise central government, which, as the representative of capital in politics, enjoys considerable power, will pick off councils one by one.
Municipal socialism is always threatened by its inability to escape the wider class dynamics in society — much like workers’ cooperatives can only survive for a limited time before either being captured by capital or becoming the central sites for a wider transformative strategy across the working class.
Time will tell whether current efforts to develop a coherent Labour left strategy will succeed or not. The red flag flew over the Lambeth’s within living memory — and with luck it could again one day.