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Can the Tories abolish "Red Ken"? The attack on the G.L.C.

When British voters went to the polls in the general election of June 1983, few took note of a phrase that had been inserted at the last moment in the Conservative Party's manifesto: "We shall abolish them [the Greater London Council (G.L.C.) and metropolitan counties] and return most of their functions to the boroughs and districts." Even fewer believed that the Tories would ever take such an extreme measure, or that they could succeed. But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is pursuing her purpose with the usual inflexible tenacity. Administratively, London is about to be abolished.

Under the abolition bill formally announced in the Queen's speech at the opening of the 1984-85 session of Parliament on November 6, the G.L.C.'s powers would be vested in London's thirty-two borough councils, which are democratically elected but, but virtue of their size, are politically far less significant bodies. Functions that cannot be divided, such as firefighting and the administration of the police force, will be taken over by boards headed by borough delegates. And to forestall the election of strong, radical city governments eslewhere in the country, the metropolitan county councils, which were created by Edward Heath's Conservative government in 1972 and which govern cities like Manchester and Liverpool an their satellite towns, will also be dismantled.

The bill is not the first attempt by a Tory government to alter the political bias of London's administration by changing its structure, but it is the most drastic. Since the Labor Party achieved major political status, in the 1920s, Londong, because of its predominantly working-class population, has tended to elect a Labor majoriyt. From 1934, Labor's control of the G.L.C.'s predecessor, the London County council (L.C.C.), was unshakable. In 1965, Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home's Conservative government enlarged London to take in wealthier suburban areas; the L.C.C. became the Greater London Council, and borough boundaries were redrawn. The act stopped short, however, of breaking up the L.C.C.'s progressive Education Department. Renamed the Inner London Education Authority (I.L.E.A.), it continues to manage the city's schools and colleges.

Frustratingly for the Tories, the change didn't have the desired effect. Its deisgners had got their geography wrong; some of London's new territory consisted of industrial or dockland communities which consistently voted for Labor. Elections (held at four-year intervals) were generally a close call. The G.L.C. was controlled by Labor in 1973, by the Tories in 1977 and by Labor again in 1981.

In 1981, something quite intolerable happened so far as the Thatcherites were concerned. Not only did Labor win 50 of the 92 seats but most of the newly elected members were radicals, in contrast to the cautions moderates who had held sway in earlier Labor administrations. Their first act was to dismiss G.L.C. leader Andrew McIntosh who had also been the Labor leader in the election campaign, and replace him with Ken Livingstone. (McIntosh was tactfully elevated to the House of Lords.)

County Hall had never seen a leader like Livingstone before. He claims to have been politicized by the the New Left while aiding American draft resisters during the Vietnam War. He lives in a single furnished room and travels to work by bus. When invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, he declined with the remark, "My own wedding was bad enough." (Livingstone is divorced.)

The policies of the Livingstone administration have been equally iconoclastic. In 1981, fares on buses and underground trains were sharply reduced--an act of political courage in a period of steep inflation--and public transport was heavily subsidized by local property tax revenues. The same year, London was declared a nuclear-free zone, and banners rejecting the arms race appeared across the face of County Hall. Affirmative action was introduced to give more G.L.C.-controlled jobs to women and blacks, despite opposition from the unions representing the staff. Public money for the arts was allocated to street theater groups and mural artists rather than to established galleries and the opera. And all manner of local activists--on behalf of public-housing tenants, homeless squatters, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, battered women, feminist publishers--have received recognition and financial aid from the G.L.C.

Most important, Livingstone's administration has attacked unemployment with a job-creation program. Most Britons tend to see unemployment as affecting the old industrial towns in northern England, Wales and Scotland. In reality, in some London districts unemployment is as high as it is anywhere in the nation. The East End has become a disaster area. Most of the London docks, which once provided some 20,000 jobs, were closed by 1983, their work transferred to deepwater ports farther along the Thames estuary. Scores of factories have relocated or gone out of business.

Combating unemployment has not hitherto been considered a duty of the city administration, except insofar as it is itself an employer. Livingstone has allocated funds to support a number of new enterprises, some owned by the G.L.C., some formed as cooperatives, some set up by private employers. Given the limited funds available and the adverse economic climate, there have been no miracles, but about 8,000 jobs have been created in needy areas. The policy runs counter to the Thatcher government's monetarist philosophy, which has so far produced only increased unemployment. What is most galling for the Tories, it provides an example in miniature of how a Labor job-creation program might work.

Livingstone has taken controversial stands on national as well as municipal issues. He openly advocates British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and has been received by leaders of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. In the Labor Party, he aligns himself with Tony Benn and the so-called hard left. The news media were quick to christen him Red Ken and present him as a public enemy. But to the surprise of many, including some members of his own party, Livingstone and the new-model G.L.C. have become increasingly popular. The transport fare cut was welcomed, and had the result of reducing traffic congestion and accidents. When a court declared it illegal, a vigorous popular campaign formed in support of the Fares Fair program. Londoners like the open-door policy at County Hall, under which officials must make themselves accessible to the public, and the once-quiet corridors are swarming with citizens presenting their points of view. Londoners also like the proliferation of street fairs and park festivals celebrating events like Children's Day and Peace Day. In a gray age, London is once again something of a fun city with a sense of community. And with every television interview, Livingstone--articulate, quick-witted, calm under provocation--has improved his standing with his constituents. In effect, he is the first mayor that London has ever had, and he has become a household name much as Fiorello La Guardia was.

County Hall, draped with a banner displaying the number of London's unemployed, glowers at the Houses of Parliament from across the Thames. Thatcher came to the conclusion that there was only one way to clean up this eyesore: get rid of the G.L.C. and, with it, Red Ken. Hence the abolition bill, widely considered Thatcher's personal initiative. With their large majority in the House of Commons, the Conservatives are unlikely to be defeated in a crucial vote, and the bill will almost certainly go through. But it has already caused the government embarrassment.

For reasons of parliamentary scheduling, the abolition of the G.L.C. cannot be effected before 1986. Inconveniently, the next G.L.C. election should take place next May, and it is obvious to all observers that if it does, Labor will score a victory. Earlier this year, therefore, the Thatcher government introduced a short "paving bill" (to pave the way to abolition), under which the G.L.C. would cease to exist in 1985 and a government-appointed body would assume its functions until the boroughts took over in 1986. This outrage against democracy gave Livingstone a sure-fire issue. London was festooned with placards that showed a garbage bin crammed with votes and bore the slogan "Say No to No Say." The paving bill passed the House of Commons but was rejected in July by the House of Lords. Thatcher was forced to abandon the proposal, prolonging the life of the G.L.C. until at least 1986.

The government has also been forced to accept the continued existence of the I.L.E.A. Thatcher's plan to give control of education to the boroughs was clearly unworkable, since pupils often attend schools in other boroughs or transfer when their families move. The abolition bill has been amended so that the I.L.E.A. will remain, as an elected body with a predictable Labor majority.

With the general issue of abolition, too, Thatcher is on shaky ground. Much of her rhetoric over the years has featured attacks on big government and on the idea that "the man in Whitehall knows best" (an unfortunate phrase used many years ago by a Labor minister). Tories are supposed to favor local decision-making and local control of spending, but Thatcher's has turned out to be the most centralizing government Britain has seen for a long time. City and county councils have had their budgets scrutinized and pared, have received direct orders from Whitehall and have been penalized for disobedience. The abolition of the G.L.C. would come as final proof that this government cannot tolerate any rival centers of power.

What's more, Londoners have shown an unexpected attachment to their city government: polls indicate that 75 percent oppose abolition. All members of the G.L.C., Tory as well as Labor, oppose the plan. The bill will have to be piloted through the Commons by Environment Secretary Patrick Jenkin, the most bumbling and slow-witted of Thatcher's ministers, who is regularly made to look foolish in debates. It may well be heavily amended in committee and amended again when it reaches the Lords. Some Tories, especially those representing London districts, are likely to cast dissenting votes or at least to abstain. (The Lords could even throw the bill out, although it is generally held that the rejection of a major item of the government's program would exceed their constitutional power.)

Meanwhile, Red Ken can be relied on to muster all his ingenuity and his flair for publicity to demonstrate that he stands for democracy and Thatcher stands for arbitrary authority. He has already made a pre-emptive strike. In September, he and three other Labor G.L.C. members resigned their seats and stood for re-election. Furious, Thatcher denounced the move as a propaganda display and a waste of public money, and ordered that no Tory candidates run against them. Thus, the Labor candidates were left with no opposition except candidates of the Liberal and Social-Democratic Parties. The outcome was such a foregone conclusion that only 25 to 30 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Livingstone and his three comrades secured upward of 70 percent of the votes cast, and went on to claim an endorsement of their resistance to abolition of the G.L.C.

The parliamentary debates over the G.L.C will take place during a winter when Thatcher must also conduct the biggest battle of her political life--the battle to break the miners' strike. Another important event in coming months will be the trial under the Official secrets Act of Clive Ponting, an assistant secretary at The Ministry of Defense who handed a Labor M.P. documents relating to the controversial sinking of the Argentine warship General Belgrano during the Falklands war. Ponting is expected to Parliament and the British nation, not solely to the government. When the three issues are taken together--the use of the Official Secrets Act to discipline a public servant, the often violent police actions against striking miners and the abolition of the G.L.C. and other metropolitan county boards--Thatcher risks looking like something of a dictator. Meanwhile, unemployment remains tragically high and the economy is depressed. Whatever the fate of the G.L.C., the debate over its abolition may cost Thatcher more in popularity than she can afford.
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Title Annotation:Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council
Author:Jones, Mervyn
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 24, 1984
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