Friday, 28 September 2007

The Conservatives and London Governance

As the 2008 London Mayoral race begins to warm up, with Ken Livingstone facing his most media friendly and arguably his stiffest challenge yet, it is interesting to note the Conservatives' history regarding London governance. It is interesting to note how the development of the political organisation of London, and how efforts to create, expand, limit or abolish London's governing authorities were influenced by the policies and political ambitions of the incumbents of central government, coupled with parochial concerns characterised by London's 'east-west' divide in the nineteenth century, and then between inner and outer London from the mid-twentieth century onwards.

The main reason for the political manipulation of London's governing bodies by central government, often at the expense of the practical needs of London as a city, is that the British political constitution is one of a unitary state, characterized by supreme power being held by parliament as the central authority of power. The structure and functions of all local government powers are controlled by Westminster and in Britain 'local democracy only ever existed on licence' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:43). One reason why there was much political conflict regarding the administration of the capital city between 1889 and 1986 when it had a directly elected administration, is that the national government had been predominantly controlled by the Conservative party. During this time non-Conservative governments with parliamentary majorities were in power for less than 20 years. London's local government in stark contrast to this, only had Conservative party control for 36 out of the 97 years that an elected administration existed. Therefore due to the superior constitutional position which central government holds, the Conservatives, when in control of Whitehall had often sought to effect the structure of London's local government to their political advantage, especially to prevent a radical administration forming in the national, and for much of this period imperial capital, directly opposing its policies.

The parochial conflict that existed between the east and west-ends of the metropolis, had roots which pre-dated party politics in the capital. Prior to the 1851 census there was no agreed definition of "London" and where its boundaries lay, other than that of the City of London area. "London" had for many centuries consisted of two separate entities, in the City of London and Westminster, with the rest of the area that was to make up London's conurbation area for many centuries run by several separate parish vestries. This situation had often led to conflict as 'civic pride was still primarily parochial, and if anything divisive in its effects' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:23).

The City of London had enjoyed considerable independence from central government as a local authority within the square mile, however the Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations Report of 1837 had recommended that the extension of the City of London Corporation's jurisdiction was the best solution for governing a rapidly expanding London, as most of the adjacent parishes were 'carefully planned within themselves but with little reference to the adjoining villages' (Hall 1997:88). The City of London Corporation however had strongly opposed this recommendation and had preferred to preserve its considerable powers and look after its own interests, rather than subsidizing the development of its poorer neighbours, or create a possibility of the City Corporation becoming an accountable organisation. The City had remained a staunch opponent to reforming the governance of London throughout the nineteenth century and had often resorted to underhand tactics. The findings of an 1887 parliamentary inquiry included 'bribery, the founding of bogus organisations, false reports and violent behaviour' (Wheen 1985:17)

As well as the City lacking a willingness to be involved in a centralised London governing body, the wealthier vestries of the west had also lacked the same level of enthusiasm as the poorer vestries of the east for such a move, in 1837 an attempt to create a pan-London authority was defeated by the Marylebone and Westminster districts. The need for such an authority had been highlighted by a series of public health problems effecting the whole metropolis, most notably several cholera outbreaks, which occurred in the early nineteenth century and was largely the result of poor sanitation. This had led to a renewed motivation across the metropolis to deal with its overall running.

Under the 1854 Royal Commission on the City Corporation, a Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was approved and then set up under the Metropolis Management Act 1855, which aimed to provide the infrastructure to cope with the problems associated with London's rapid growth, by dividing powers between itself and the parishes. The MBW had achieved some degree of success in its provision of London's infrastructure, but was in many ways a concessionary measure to delay metropolitan-wide democracy, and had 'limited resources and insufficient authority (which) rendered any really effective action impossible' (Hall 1997:91).
The MBW had not been accountable to the residents of London and in 1888, many Liberal reformers had thought it appropriate that the MBW be replaced by an authority that was directly elected, in the mould of numerous county councils which were set up in the UK, during the very same year. Such reformers had long opposed the MBW's existence 'as an undemocratic body in the grip of the City Corporation and the conservative vestries' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:23). The MBW had been involved a succession of scandals, of which the worst in 1888 had led to a Royal Commission investigation, that had found several officers and two members of the MBW had acted corruptly.

The MBW was replaced by the democratically elected LCC in 1889 which was created by the Local Government Act 1888. In many ways from hereafter, the parochial interests of certain areas of the metropolis had transferred itself to the domain of party politics. Many of the better off western parishes, opposed to metropolitan-wide government had sided with the Conservatives and their affiliated Moderates, with many of the poorer eastern parishes siding with the radical Liberal-affiliated Progressives and later the Labour party.

The LCC's introduction by the Conservative government of the day, was in many ways a political compromise. Their return to power in 1886 was greatly reliant upon an electoral pact with the Liberal Unionists, many of whom favoured the introduction of a County Council for London. There had also been fears of a violent uprising within the metropolis, from riots such as was seen in Pall Mall in 1886 and Trafalgar Square in 1887. The first elected LCC was controlled by the Progressives, who 'had an ambitious programme of municipalisation. They hankered for control of the police, the water supply and the gas and electricity services' (Jackson 1965:10).

The Conservative government however, was careful to limit any concessions over the creation of a pan-London authority, the LCC had roughly the same powers as the MBW previously had, with the exception of being elected by its residents. It was also an atypical example of a county in that it did not have the same powers conferred on other county councils. The LCC 'did not perform the same role as, say, the Lancashire County Council' (Rhodes and Ruck 1970:19) and was 'in its early years…but a pale and slender precursor of its later self' (Jackson 1965:8).
Within a decade the Conservative government had sought to put a brake on powers the LCC, their leader Lord Salisbury referred to the body as 'the place where collectivist and socialistic experiments are tried' (, 12/12/05).

In the creation of the London Government Act 1899, the Conservatives had 'proposed breaking up the LCC and transferring its powers and duties to the boroughs' (Wheen 1985:17). The Act created a lower tier of 28 metropolitan boroughs replacing the earlier parishes and vestries, who were to share powers with the LCC. The new metropolitan boroughs however 'were never strong enough individually or collectively, to mount a serious challenge to the LCC's authority' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:24).

This structure of pan-London democracy remained static as the Conservative-affiliated Municipal Reform Party dominated the LCC from 1907-34, but from the inter-war period onwards, when Labour's power was rising in the County of London, there had inevitably arose questions around the size and boundaries of London's governing authority. It was clear that the inter-dependence which existed within the County of London area had appeared to have extended beyond the county boundaries, and into the outer suburbs, as a continuous built up area had formed with the Green Belt as the boundary and 'transport facilities had made it possible for workers in the central areas to live outside the County' (Jackson 1965:234). As well as white-collar workers, much of London's industry had also relocated to the outer suburbs, the most famous example being that of Ford's Dagenham plant which opened in 1931. Between 1934-38 the LCC area had a net loss of 191 factories, whereas the outer London area had a net gain of 429 plants.

A Labour controlled LCC had aided the creation of this 'Greater' London area, in its building of council estates in areas outside of their County area, a power which only the LCC and the City Corporation had authority to perform, and a power which the LCC made extensive use of, due to the cheaper land and lower density living available in these areas. An example of an LCC out-county estate was the Becontree Estate in Essex, with over 26,000 new homes. Despite this, the idea of a Greater London Council and fewer amalgamated boroughs had been picked up by the Conservative administration which had dominated Westminster between 1951-64, though had failed to control the LCC from 1934 to its abolition in 1965.

The increased demands on local government had meant that London's expansion was 'suggested for many years from various non-political quarters…(and) was not exclusively a Conservative idea' (Jackson 1965:239), but the Conservatives were accused of taking their own political considerations into account, over and above the interests of the organisation of the capital. The introduction of a more 'conservative minded' outer ring of Greater London would have increased their chances of regaining control of County Hall, which had looked improbable under the existing LCC boundaries.

The practical considerations and apolitical endorsement of the creation of a Greater London Council did not prevent the considerable opposition to it. The parliamentary Labour party had by 1962 taken the stand of opposing a Greater London body, of which their leader Hugh Gaitskill vowed to fight any proposed bill 'clause by clause, and line by line' (Rhodes and Ruck 1970:43). The LCC opposed a Greater London Council, particularly moves to reduce the number of boroughs and the transference of any of its functions to the individual boroughs. Meanwhile the individual boroughs who may have favoured taking over these functions, strongly opposed amalgamation with other boroughs.

The Herbert Commission was formed by the Conservative government to look into issues of local government in Greater London in 1960 and from its proposals the GLC was formed in 1963. Despite it being a creation of a Conservative administration, it remained an unpopular institution with the predominantly Conservative outer-London boroughs, and in many ways the divide between inner and outer-London became as important as the 'east-west' divide that dominated London's politics in the preceding century. The GLC's creation was for the most part strongly opposed in the counties and county boroughs which were either to disappear altogether, such as Middlesex, or as a result, would suffer considerable reductions in territory, such as Essex, Kent, or Surrey. It is therefore clear that enthusiasm for the GLC's creation was more evident in the Conservative-controlled central government than local government circles.

The Conservatives had achieved the result of regaining County Hall in 1967, but as control of the GLC returned to Labour in 1973, the GLC Conservatives were lobbying within their party for its abolition. Such proposals were delayed by Labour's election victories of 1974, who saw the need for the GLC 'to maintain the cohesiveness of Greater London as a political and economic unit' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:32). The GLC's abolition was also delayed by the Conservative's taking power of County Hall in 1977, with Sir Horace Cutler's agenda which included the selling off of council houses and public spending cuts. The GLC had become a prototype for the Thatcher administration that was to follow the Conservative general election victory of 1979, meaning the Conservative party's leadership would have been unwilling to dissolve its own control over Greater London.

Despite this there had been pressure from the Conservative dominated outer-London boroughs to review the powers of the GLC, whose belief was that they could perform the functions of the GLC as efficiently. This led to the Marshall inquiry, led by Sir Frank Marshall, a former Conservative leader of Leeds City Council. However the Marshall inquiry had praised and affirmed the need, for the GLC's existence 'as a strategic planning, resource allocating, and redistributive body….concerned with the reconciliation of London's various needs' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:32).

The cause for GLC abolition within the Conservative party had been reasserted after Labour's return to County Hall in 1981 under Ken Livingstone. The GLC was involved in a legal dispute with, and eventually defeated by, the Conservative controlled Bromley Borough Council, regarding the GLC's 'Fares Fair' policy of a 25% reduction in London's tube and bus fares, funded by an increase in rates. Bromley Council asserted that the GLC was acting outside of the powers conferred by the Transport (London) Act 1969, and was unwilling to increase its rates as it was not part of the areas covered by the London Underground, which mainly benefited Labour-controlled inner London boroughs.

Ken Livingstone also had a deliberate campaign of antagonising the Thatcher government, which included placing an electronic scoreboard of London's rising unemployment figures on the side of County Hall, directly opposite Parliament; entering into dialogue with Sinn Fein, and endorsing a statute of Nelson Mandela, whom Thatcher regarded as a terrorist. It was partly because of this, Livingstone's administration had been accused of considering wider political issues, over those that were specifically of concern to the organisation of London, and many of its policies were 'symbolic stances aimed at a national audience….using the council machinery as part of a political campaign both against the government and in defence of socialist policies' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:36).

The GLC was also criticised for increasing funding to groups such as Women's, gay and Ethnic Minority Committees, which had combined campaigns with bestowing grants to groups and projects. Norman Tebbit, a leading member of the Thatcher administration and MP for the outer-London constituency of Chingford, had described this as an 'assault on the interests of the majority of Londoners….(the) encouragement and funding of every minority cult and creation which the mind can imagine' (Wheen 1985:9). The counter argument to the Conservatives' accusation of the GLC being 'wasteful' with its grants was that 'Ministers were also concerned that the grants the council handed out to various groups….were creating a permanent constituency for Labour voters' (, 09/12/05) and possibly fears of repeating the permanently Labour-controlled County Hall, which occurred with the LCC by the mid-twentieth century.

The influence of Livingstone's GLC was also felt on a national level, with the growth of a new 'urban left' movement in other cities around the UK during the 1980's. A notable example of this was 'Militant' in Liverpool who challenged the policies of the Thatcher government and 'saw it as their duty to try to alleviate the effects of central government policies in their areas' (Wheen 1985:23), in the face of central government's threats to 'put the squeeze' on local government spending. After the landslide election defeat of the parliamentary Labour party in 1983, Ken Livingstone's GLC had been one of the few serious opponents to Thatcher's drive to dismantle the post-war Keynesian consensus and 'the political outlook identified with Livingstone….transformed the landscape of local politics in the 1980's' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:36).

The threat of Labour dominated councils challenging the Thatcherite programme had thus lead to the GLC, as well as six other Labour controlled metropolitan counties, becoming the subject of a government White Paper entitled 'Streamlining the cities'. This had advocated abolition, for being uneconomic and wasteful with resources and in turn influenced the Local Government Act 1985, which once it passed through parliament, had set the date for abolition on 1st April 1986. There had been a strong belief, particularly within the Labour party that the GLC, as well as considerations of London's local government needs, had been sacrificed for the political aims of the central government of the day.

The GLC's abolition was carried out without any investigation, unlike its creation, which was preceded by the extensive Herbert commission. The unpopularity of this move was such that discontent was expressed outside of both the Labour party and the GLC. By September 1984, a poll conducted by London Weekend Television's 'The London Programme' found that 74% of Londoners had been against the abolition of the GLC, as well as the Conservative leader at County Hall, Alan Greengross endorsing the retention of a pan-London authority for 'direction for the specific tasks that must be done for London as a whole' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:42).

Following abolition in 1986, the 32 individual boroughs effectively became unitary authorities, ruled by a single tier of local government, and responsible for almost all local government functions within their areas, giving the Conservative boroughs autonomy from a Labour controlled GLC. Such boroughs were relieved to a considerable extent of the financially re-distributive functions of the GLC, which also benefited the wider economic aims of the Thatcher government for the national economy, that of wealth creation instead of wealth re-distribution. It was estimated that from the GLC's abolition 'the largest increase in rates would be 17.6p in (Inner London and Labour controlled) Islington….(whilst) the end of the GLC would cut Westminster's rate poundage by 5.1p and the City of London's by 7p' (Wheen 1985:119).

The Conservative dominated central government had also gained direct control over many of the former GLC's powers and services, for example the formation of London Regional Transport to take over control of London's Buses and Underground trains. Functions were also taken over indirectly through non-governmental, but government appointed and funded bodies, otherwise known as 'Quangos'. Examples of such organisations were the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), responsible for the regeneration of former Dock areas, and the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), which was formed to give strategic advice on London planning to the Department of the Environment.

Unlike the GLC, these quangos were unaccountable to Greater London residents and were given powers 'unprecedented in that they were previously only exercised by local authorities acting as elected bodies' (, 11/12/05). This new arrangement for London governance was described by John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington as 'culminating in the establishment of the government of our capital city by an appointed state: the appointment of Tories, by Tories, to line the pockets of Tories' (, 11/12/05).

In conclusion therefore, the governing of London had long been effected by the parochial concerns of various areas of the metropolis, with a general unwillingness among such areas to effectively see London, or Greater London as a whole, inter-connected unit. The Conservative party's response for most of this period, was to seek to retain 'localism' within the metropolis, in that 'it was not part of party doctrine to seek to curtail local discretion by means of detailed central intervention in local affairs' (, 13/12/05). This situation was coupled with London's political 'otherness' from the rest of the nation, which had for much of the period in question left it contradicting the political make up of the national government. Due to the high visibility of its actions, being the largest local authority in the UK, situated in the national capital and in close geographical proximity to Whitehall itself, London's local government was 'regarded as a political prize by both main national parties' (Rhodes and Ruck 1970:91).

The recognition of the importance of the local government of London's influence on national affairs had become startlingly clear by the 1980s, as 'excluded groups, represented chiefly by the Labour party, demonstrated that national party politics was becoming an inherent aspect of local political life' (, 13/12/05). Central governments throughout the 1889-1986 period would have undoubtedly viewed such an administration as a threat to the legitimacy of its national authority if this administration's policy greatly contradicted its own, and would thus seek to alter the structure of such an authority for its own benefit. The history of London's governance during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can therefore be summed up as 'one of conflict of interplay between central government, campaigners and recalcitrant local authorities' (Pimlott and Rao 2002:21).

Rhodes and Ruck, The Government of Greater London, 1970, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London
Hall, Thomas, Planning Europe's Capital Cities: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Urban Development, 1997, Chapman and Hall, London, Weinheim, New York, Tokyo, Melbourne, Madras
Jackson, W. Eric, Achievement: A Short History of the London County Council, 1965, Longmans, London
Wheen, Francis, The Battle for London, 1985, Pluto Press, London
Pimlott and Rao, Governing London, 2002, Oxford University Press, Oxford

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