Owen Hatherley is an author, architecture critic and culture editor at Tribune. His most recent book is Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, which chronicles London’s municipal politics from the early social housing projects of the London County Council (1889-1965), to the Greater London Council (1965 to 1986) through to the London Mayoralty which continues to this day. Common Wealth spoke to Hatherley about municipal politics and democratic ownership in the English capital.
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From your perspective, what made the urban politics of the Great London Council (GLC) so significant? Why did you go back to tell that story?
The interesting thing about the Greater London GLC is that if you want to see the roots of the movement in the Labour Party from 2015, to the start of this year , it's where you need to look. I think the history that the Left tells about itself is often much less interesting and mythological [than it really was] and belies the actual roots of this stuff. There's a couple of exceptions in this, Andy Beckett has got a very, very good handle in the articles he's written on Corbynism. But a lot of our enemies seem to think that it sort of emerged from weird pool of mad crankery on the far Left. And a lot of us on the Left had set up a kind of "spirit of '45", Nye Bevan, Clement Attlee, at best Tony Benn, sort of history of "glorious failure" as our antecedent – a Durham Miners Gala version of what this was and what it came from.
For better or worse, what it actually came from, was the London Left in the 1970s and 80s. It came out of a movement in councils and in the Greater London Council itself. It was a move towards a more decentralised vision of municipal socialism than had hitherto existed based around cooperative, a democratic industrial strategy, around a democratisation of the welfare state, and towards an official municipal policy of anti-racism, LGBT rights, feminism and anti-imperialism, that’s where a lot of the personnel come from, specifically. John McDonnell was effectively the chancellor of the Greater London Council between 1981-86. Diane Abbott had been its press officer. And Jeremy Corbyn, although he was an MP, had previously been a Haringey councillor, and had been very closely involved in these particular debates. Think of that wonderful photograph of Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant taking their seats in Parliament in 1987 – that’s the municipal Left. And obviously Bernie Grant died before he could be a part of it but I'm sure that if he had survived, he would have very much been a part of Corbynism.
On the one hand, what's interesting about the GLC is that it was a movement that was carrying out what we would later have as a program in 2017 and 2019 and doing so at the local level. We can look at what's to be learned, and what's not to be learned from that program. And we can understand what it actually was, rather than following either the misunderstandings of a deeply nostalgic, "authentocrat" Left, and beyond the caricatures of our opponents. And also, we can understand why it is that this movement was most successful in London, something which a lot of people have posed as a problem (whereas I consider it quite unsurprising that it was most successful in London, I think that's quite logical given that it was basically a London Left politics and none the worse for that).
You lay out this set of contradictions and failings of the GLC, the racial politics that properly thought out being one of them. Do you think you could lay that out?
Well on the racial politics of the GLC – I've not got the knowledge and the research to be able to go into it in depth. The person whose work I draw on and that chapter in terms of its limitations was Paul Gilroy. Basically, in [Gilroy's book] "There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack", what he does is lay out this sequence of anti-racist activism in Britain, that goes from Rock Against Racism, which was good, the Anti-Nazi League, which was a decline from that, and then the Greater London Council, which was a decline from that. In some ways that's pretty typical of the left-wing "glorious failure" thinking my book sets out to critique - it was great when it was a social movement when it actually came down to people actually making policy it got boring. Satnam Virdee's more recent research - that I quote in the book - suggests that what Gilroy appears to argue was tokenism actually represented a major change in who worked for local government, and who was at the head of local government. That was actually much more profound. It wasn't just: "Oh, we do anti-racist posters now." There were actual local government employment policies which are way more important and actually reflected the diversity of London.
One of the things where I think Gilroy is on stronger ground is on the cultural policy. A lot of the GLC anti-racist posters of the 1980s now look very dated and patronising and there his critique has aged well. The GLC had this wonderful program of music festivals, public events, carnivals and so on, this is very much inspired by Rock Against Racism, and by the Italian Communist Party’s Unità festivals, and they ended up having a hip-hop event in 1984. Whereas their usual fare was, roots, reggae, folk – kind of an authentic [BBC disc jockey] Andy Kershaw type music which attracted a mainly older audience, with the hip hop jam, they had an audience of mainly black youth. And the statistics are mad, they also got like 10 times more people than they expected, because they hadn't realised – because they were politicians in their 30s and 40s – that what black youth really wanted to listen to was hip hop. It took place on the South Bank, and it was hugely overcrowded. there were stewarding problems and they ended up calling the police. For Gilroy, that's a real indictment, because that's absolutely the thing, that the youth at that festival, would least have wanted was for the police to be called and because of the enormously disciplinary and occupying nature of the police in those communities in the 80s. It was a sign that the GLC were just the same - that they were just another figure of authority. And does that mean the whole project was a failure? Because one gig ended badly? No, I don't think so. I put that in there because I think it’s important to warn against being too dewy-eyed about it [the GLC], but actually, looked at coldly, I don't think either of those things is particularly bad. You know, obviously, the police shouldn't have been called, but I don't think invalidates the entire project. The other thing on which I'm much more critical about the GLC and its New Left days, is housing, and its housing policy more generally.
Right - that's, a distinction you make between the GLC and the older London County Council [LCC].
There are several models of non-market housing that were established in London. And the earliest is in the 1860s, around the Peabody Trust and charitable housing aimed specifically at the deserving poor and given by benevolent bankers in this case. This is supplanted by council housing under the LCC in the so-called "Progressive Era" of the 1890s and 1900s, where housing is instead provided out of taxation, as a kind of right, rather than the sort of charitable "here you go", type thing. And [council housing] is controlled by a democratically elected local authority. It still remained legally for the working classes at that point. That clause is then removed after World War Two, when Nye Bevan, is briefly housing minister as well as health minister, so at that point comes housing can be for anyone in the population. And it is. People forget the huge amount of middle-class people that lived in council housing, much in the same way that when people say, comprehensive school, they forget that the overwhelming majority people go to comprehensive schools in this country. When people talk about, I grew up in a council houses - well so did like, about 60% of the urban population in 1981. That comes from this period. And then obviously, the huge expansion of council housing in the 60s under Harold Wilson, and Macmillan as well, causes for the first-time major problems with construction quality. There is a quantity, I would say a small minority, of council housing, which is quite badly built at that point. That combined with the nascent conservation movement, combined with the interest of democracy on the part of the New Left leads to this critique of municipal housing. It's critique as a form of, to quote the anarchists, Colin Ward, "municipal landlordism." The New Left is very much part of those debates.
II'm coming to this material as someone who is both an enthusiast for New Left politics but also an enthusiast for the architecture and planning that they hated. Obviously when you're dealing with the history on this, you can't just have your cake and eat it – you can't just say both are good. You have to discuss the real opposition between the two and the New Left record on it is not so good. Like one of the first things Ken Livingstone did when he took over at Camden Council in the late 70s is cancel the kind of housing projects that were being done at that point by Camden Council, which are now recognised to be probably the finest in the country of any sort of council housing - or private housing, middle class housing or working class housing. It was among the best stuff anywhere in the world at that point. And the Camden New Left regarded this stuff as corrupt, technocratic, totalitarian, and were very harshly critical of it and Neave Brown, the architect in question was dragged through the courts to prove that he was culpable for the cost overruns of Alexandra Road [Estate]. And now actually, no one remembers the cost overruns of Alexandra Road – it's just seen as a great example of socialist housing, which it is. The fact that the most socialist group on Camden Council tried to get it stopped, is really kind of forgotten. As a historian, I couldn't really ignore that.
There's another example later was when Ted Hollamby, the architect of Lambeth, who I think after Camden was really the most interesting borough designing housing, is forced out by the New Left under Ted Knight. Later on, everyone changed their mind about this. Ken Livingstone writes in his autobiography that actually the housing that Camden was doing was great, it was just really expensive, and it was cheaper for them to rehouse people and refurbish Victorian property, which is fine, but if you could do that without slandering an innocent man, and without demonising very, very good housing, that would have been nice. And similarly, Ted Knight, actually, at the end of his life was elected as the chair of the Labour CLP in Gipsy Hill partly because of his support of a campaign to save Central Hill, one of Ted Hollamby's housing estates. They come around to the stuff that they opposed. That also suggests that element of their politics was a thing where after time, and after they saw the assault on Council Housing, that the assault of this government and the subsequent governments had changed their minds . And they were able to be much more sort of distanced and go, actually, we were wrong about this. I'm very, very clear that I think the New Left were wrong about housing. And what are some things they got, right, which include the fact that municipal provision was not always particularly democratic. There was very little in the way of consultation. It was very much done from the top down in a really quite extreme way. And it was, I think, more importantly, not particularly democratically controlled. And I think that that's much more the crucial issue - the New Left's efforts to democratise housing that existed so that tenants had much more of a say in what happened in and around their estates. I think that's a much more important thing than the critique of municipal landlordism, which I think is, is dated to put it very politely. I think that, it turns out there's something worse than 'municipal landlordism', and that's landlordism. Now we have landlordism. In the 70s and 80s landlordism wasn't that big a thing. There's a whole load of typologies from housing past that have returned in the last 20 years, but really, especially the last 10 years, and as they've returned, it's been much easier to look at the successes of the era that preceded it, because we can now see what they were trying to stop. Which is a situation like we have in London now of the huge levels of overcrowding and beds in sheds and homelessness and so on – just endemic landlordism.
In terms of the GLC specific policies, I think one can sort of look at those that were quite laudable. And I think the key example is Coin Street. Coin Street was an area on the South Bank, which allocates huge property boondoggle planned for pretty similar to something now at the Bishopsgate Goodsyard and like the Bishopsgate Goodsyard show there was a very, very long running campaign against it by local residents. And simply to put it very quickly the GLC took the side of that campaign and compulsorily purchased the land and just said: “okay here's a load of money, you can now build what you would want to see there instead.” And that's what they did. It remains one of the parts of central London that is affordable. And there's very little of that in the 80s. This is the era of Docklands! In the middle of that to get a site that is next to the National Theatre and opposite St. Paul's, and for that to be cooperative, cheap cooperative housing controlled by its residents. That’s really a titanic achievement. And it still provides that for the people that live there. If there’s anything to learn from the GLC and housing, it’s that.
I think the first phase is actually pretty poor, you can see the first phase further away from the river. It’s real typical 80s suburban vernacular in a city site. If there’s one thing to say about the 80s, anyone involved in planning and architecture was terrified of cities. Pretty much all housing, whether it's done by Conservative or by Labour or even by Trotskyist government, as in Liverpool, is deeply conservative [in style]. That's a puzzle in many ways. There was a general failure of urban nerve, and a fear of crime and a fear of the city and a fear of density. That really ran deep, on the Left as much as on the right in the 80s. They [Labour] lost that over time and I think a lot of that probably came down to the influence of architects, the influence of people like Richard Rogers, who actually was behind the corporate face of Coin Street, but later became a Labour advisor. They went off to Barcelona and Berlin, and saw that actually cities are nice, who knew. Which is great. That's pretty much the only side of New Labour that I'm quite sympathetic to is this idea that actually cities are nice, let's have more cities.
Despite that, another side which isn't a GLC project, but which is very much part of the 80s New Left, which is the self- build houses Lewisham Council were doing with the architect Walter Segal, mainly in Honor Oak Park. And recently for a book, which I edited on the London boroughs, I got architect Magnus Wills to interview Nicholas Taylor, who was the head of Lewisham architecture department at the time. And he asked, would you do this now? And he said: “of course I wouldn’t – I did that in the mid 80s, because there was a surplus of housing.” Estates were hard to let, estates were half empty, London was still shrinking in terms of population, rather, than very rapidly growing, which it has been doing for the last 20 years. You could have a weird little site where people could build their own houses. They could spend council resources on that, and in terms of unemployment, it was a clever thing because unemployment at that time was a big problem. When Taylor was asked what he would do now, his response was that he would build a load of council housing. That's all you need to know, really, is that these were specific responses to specific problems. The best of it, it made sense at the time. But they were solutions in a very different moment of London's political economy and civic life, and its housing situations. Almost a different city in some ways.
The last question I want to ask you about is the upcoming May local elections. In Red Metropolis you talk about the London Plan and its political significance. It's become something of a flashpoint in the upcoming London Mayoral election, including with the TfL bailout. What's your thinking on the May elections and the political landscape that's unfolded there?
For those that don't know the London Plan is one of the few things that the Mayor has actual real power over. For a lot of people on the Left who were interested in London politics, one of our major activities was trying to argue that the London Plan doesn't go nearly far enough. It still accepted this exponential growth of London, it still accepted that you would do social housing and social planning by creaming off a bit from developers. It moved further Left than we've seen since Ken Livingstone's first term – there's a lot of stuff in it about tenants’ ballots on estate regeneration, on building council housing and funding councils, and on working out what land municipalities own and encouraging them not to sell it, which is important. There are things in it that were good. But people like Just Space, for instance, are very much saying that this doesn't go anywhere near far enough, [and arguing] that we need to get assembly members to challenge it.
And then [the London Plan] went to Robert Jenrick, the practically satanic Minister for Planning and Housing that we have. In between letting Richard Desmond build skyscrapers and helping him pay no taxes to Tower Hamlets Council in the process, he said that the government would not accept this London Plan. And that's the first time this has happened. That says a lot about London politics. But the fact was that [at the time we] were just on the verge of the first wave of the pandemic, so that was just ignored completely. It just didn't feature in the news. The democratically elected authority of London was told to fuck off basically. This should have been a sign of things to come.
Lots of the conditions that they put on TfL's bailout, were based on this ludicrous idea that TfL needs to be bailed out, because of the fare freeze or because of mismanagement by Sadiq Khan – which is total, total bullshit. They have treated the Mayor of London as a political adversary and that then leaves this question on the Left of like, – well, how do we then relate to him? With the metropolitan leaders like Khan and Andy Burnham, they are under explicit attack, for trying to do relatively decent things, by an appalling government. And it's quite easy to go: "Alright, well, we'll defend Sadiq Khan against that." Because of course, we [the Left] do want to defend Sadiq Khan against that. We do want to defend his right to build council housing or created a licensed landlord scheme or introduce estate regeneration ballots? Of course, we do. I think in terms of sort of Left strategy, I have this combined thing of, on the one hand, finding Khan's politics and his quietism and his general conservatism, very depressing given that the last five years have shown quite a lot of appetite for radical change in London – the huge vote for Labour in both 2017 and 2019 in London, is an example of that. I wish he was better. I wish it was Diane Abbott, basically. And I think it's a real shame, and a real tell, that Diane Abbott didn't win that Mayoral selection. And I think most of that was based purely on the idea that Khan could stop the late candidate Tessa Jowell, who was the favourite up to that point. And then obviously, the Left shifted, the Labour shift happened.
But then, again, the interesting thing about that is looking at the sheer scale of vote that we're looking at coming from London for, for leftist ideas. Khan is currently on course, to win on the first round, which has never happened before. And in a way one could ascribe that to the way that he manages to play London's large left-wing constituency, but also a significant liberal constituency.
Going back to the May elections. It is very telling that at a time in which Tory numbers have not budged anywhere else in the country, including in the imaginary Red Wall, but in London, they don’t have the slightest hope of winning back the Mayoralty. One of the core motivations behind the whole book is that London is going through a political transformation from the city that twice voted in Boris Johnson, to a city that would accept something a lot more radical. You can see the fact that, [Tory candidate] Shaun Bailey might end up getting beaten by the Greens as evidence for that. The business of the Labour Party nationally is to win an election and they have their own priorities. I find a lot of their Red Wall strategy deeply patronising to the people that they're supposed to be talking to, and I think is based on a think tank wanker's idea of who ordinary people are. I understand why they want to win back votes in Dudley and Leigh. Of course they do. It would be weird if they didn't. But for those of us on the Left and in the big cities, in London, in Manchester, in Bristol, in Liverpool, in Leeds, in Newcastle, and in Birmingham, we need to be looking not at how we win back people over there, we need to be looking at the fact that we have power in the city, and the question of what we can do with it.