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When Cuddly Ken was Red Ken
KEN LIVINGSTONE'S present-day popularity comes partly from the perception of his battles against Thatcher's Tories as Greater London Council (GLC) leader from 1981 to 1986.
By Roger Shrives
In October 1981 the GLC introduced Fare's Fair, a radical policy to cut London's transport fares, subsidising them through the rates.
Tory Bromley council took the GLC to court over Fare's Fair and the Law Lords abolished the scheme as 'illegal' in December 1981. Fares were forced up until Livingstone negotiated a new compromise a year later, which only partly restored some of the GLC's reforms.
Socialist Party members (then Militant supporters) argued at the time that Livingstone and other GLC leaders needed to develop a strategy to mobilise mass opposition to the Tories.
Militant supporters wrote a section of the 1981 GLC manifesto which pointed out that Tory governments don't listen to pleas, only to pressure.
It said that if the GLC faced government opposition it must "appeal to the labour and trade union movement to support its stand. Mass opposition to Tory policies led by a Labour GLC could become a focal point of a national campaign involving other Labour councils, against the cuts."
On Fare's Fair Livingstone unfortunately didn't mobilise the opposition of the unions who faced job losses but relied on using PR agencies, publicity and lobbying campaigns. Nonetheless, many Londoners still remember this period affectionately.
The policies of Livingstone and other left leaders (with the exception of Liverpool and Lambeth) led to serious failings in the next big battle.
From 1983 Thatcher wanted to abolish the metropolitan county councils, especially the GLC, and crush the independence of all local authorities by 'capping' rates (the pre-poll tax local property tax).
This policy cut central government support for local councils. It tried to make ratepayers, especially the middle class, rebel against 'high-spending' left councils.
LIVERPOOL COUNCIL, where Militant supporters had a sizeable influence, fought Thatcher's plans boldly. It led a mass movement of the unions and local residents, including huge demonstrations.
They fought to set a deficit budget, a policy of maintaining jobs and services, not by pushing up rates but by demanding that the government fund their deficit. This was very popular and mobilised support for the council on the basis of specific proposals such as a massive housebuilding programme.
If other Labour councils had followed such a programme and linked it to mass action, including strikes, this could have spearheaded a real fightback by local Labour councils.
The GLC and other soft-left led councils had a policy of refusing to set a rate. This made it harder to co-ordinate different councils' opposition as every council would have a different date of bankruptcy.
They also favoured a fall-back of massive rate rises, which put much of the cost back onto ordinary working-class people.
However, if the councils had stood together, Thatcher's talk of surcharging and bankrupting rebel councillors would have been idle threats.
Livingstone, unfortunately, offered merely symbolic opposition including sending Valentine's cards of protests to Tory ministers. Even when the Tories stripped the GLC of powers such as education (the Inner London Education Authority [ILEA] was Britain's biggest) and then abolished it, there was no attempt to build a genuine mass struggle against it.
In March 1985, the GLC and ILEA led the left councils' retreat. Livingstone fixed a rate which included cuts, blaming other London boroughs for leaving them isolated, which was nonsense as one London borough, Hackney, had refused to set a rate only the week before.
In fact the GLC leaders were anxious to avoid battle with the government, fearing legal action from the Tories, including a five-year ban on holding public office. The next year, 1986, the Tories abolished the GLC and ILEA.
Liverpool and Lambeth were still fighting. The GLC's defection delighted the Tories and cost the councils which kept up resistance - and their workers - dearly. By the end of 1985, even Liverpool had had to make a tactical retreat and local councils were subsequently reduced to mere appendages of central government.
Livingstone, even in his left-wing days, never saw the need to build a movement amongst the working class. Workers are still paying for that misjudgement.
Liverpool: The City that Dared to Fight by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn - available from Socialist Books, £6.95, 020 8988 8789.
In The Socialist 24 March 2000: