London: Local Surprises

As head of a little-publicized city agency, Ken Livingstone hopes to change life in London

ACROSS THE THAMES from Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster is a crescent-shaped building on the riverfront—County Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Council. The GLC was created by an Act of Parliament in 1963, and until not very long ago, it went about its business in a reasonably unostentatious way; as recently as mid-1980, the official guide book to County Hall could say that “as one stands on the terrace there is a pleasant sense of seclusion in the midst of a thriving city.” But last May the bemused citizens of Greater London—and, for that matter, of much of the rest of the counthe country—acquired a lively interest in the activities of the GLC and in particular of its new left-wing leader, Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone now attracts as great a following from the press as do Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot, the leader of the Labour Party—remarkably, since he is striking neither in appearance (he looks like a lukewarm Lech Walesa) nor as an orator (much of what he has to say is routine stuff about bureaucracy, the media, the tyranny of central government) and since the everyday work of the authority he leads is both complex and humdrum. Responsibility for local government in Greater London is shared by the GLC with thirty-two borough councils and the City of London; the GLC’s ninetyodd elected members do not deal with many local services, which are the province of the boroughs. They do enjoy some executive responsibility for certain “metropolitan” services—transport, fire, land drainage, sewage, prevention of pollution, upkeep and management of parks and concert halls, and so on. The GLC is also described as the strategic planning authority for the whole of London, but in the years since the council’s birth, large-scale strategic planning has fallen out of fashion, though the central government has recently established an urban development corporation for London’s blighted docklands and created an “enterprize zone” with various fiscal and financial incentives for the regeneration of the inner city.

The scope and nature of the GLC’s duties have never been entirely clear to the majority of Londoners, who have for some years been content to think that most of the council’s attention is devoted to the construction of an enormous, vastly sophisticated, and inordinately expensive (£508 million at September, 1980, prices) barrier, devised to prevent the Thames from flooding low-lying parts of the city should there be a conjunction of high tides, heavy rain, and wind. Bus shelters and public buildings carry posters exhorting those in “risk areas” to practice ingenious methods of escape from such flooding, even after the barrier is finished, this year, but few people take the threat sufficiently seriously to remember what the warning klaxons sound like or whether one is supposed to return home or flee.

Suddenly, however, the GLC is all over the newspapers. Its large, important tasks may not catch the publicimagination, but its personalities do. Livingstone became leader of the GLC in May, in an election in which Labour took power with fifty seats to the Conservatives’ forty-one. (There is one Liberal, and one of the Labour councillors later became a Social Democrat, resigned her seat, and won the subsequent by-election.) Twenty of the Labour councillors elected had previously served in opposition; thirty were new to the GLC. Of the entire fifty, thirty supported Livingstone’s election to the leadership of the Labour group and therefore of the council, repudiating a moderate, Andrew McIntosh. So Livingstone had a cohort of dedicated and articulate supporters, pledged to fulfill a manifesto they had published before the 1981 election, which, they passionately maintained, constituted their “mandate.”

In their manifesto they had promised to lower the cost of London bus and underground fares by some 25 percent, to encourage community art and theater, to devise machinery for reviving manufaeturing industry in the capital, to assist the efforts of the Metropolitan Police, and to pay greater attention to the needs and difficulties of ethnic minorities. The problem has been that many of these admirable ambitions can be achieved only slowly (an intricate system of subsidies to arts and recreational bodies already exists, even if it is condemned as “elitist”) or with friction (the home secretary is constitutionally responsible for the Metropolitan Police) or at huge expense (the simplified London Transport fare structure will cost GLC rate-payers an extra £125 million in 1981-1982). The energetic visionaries on Livingstone’s team are chafed by the need to find the appropriate legal powers to support their efforts; to follow necessary procedures before money can be allocated, let alone spent; and to take account of reasoned objections. Action, it seems, does not follow the counting of the ballots.

Livingstone seeks to compensate for the inevitable frustrations of his office by floating footling notions and announcements. Taken singly, they might not be so unfortunate, but together they have been a public-relations disaster for Livingstone. His first pronouncement was on the royal wedding, to which he refused to go, because he felt it more important to spend the day looking after London’s other business. Then there was the matter of the March of the Unemployed, which he proposed to celebrate not only by receiving the marchers in County Hall and bedding them down with cups of tea (a gesture to be applauded, one would think) but by proclaiming a day on which, paradoxically, GLC employees would absent themselves from seeing to London’s business. At some point—no one can quite remember when—he expressed his support for the plight of London’s homosexuals (or, more accurately. Gays in the Greater London Area). He announced a sweeping reduction in London’s civil-defense precautions, since, it was reliably reported, he maintained that the GLC should become a nuclear-free zone. The police came in for a drubbing, especially after the Brixton riots, but Livingstone refused to condemn those IRA members who exploded a bomb outside Chelsea Barracks, killing a pedestrian and injuring other passersby. “They are not criminals or lunatics running about,” Livingstone declared. “That is to misunderstand them.”

This last remark, explained, too late, by a letter in the next day’s Times, provoked Conservative councillors to seek to censure Livingstone. They were defeated by half a dozen votes, and Livingstone’s deputy announced, “Today the GLC is extricating itself from Northern Ireland.” But the damage to Londoners’ sensibilities had been done. Livingstone is by now such a bogeyman that he takes the blame for everything: the declaration by Councillor George Nicholson (proposed as the occupant of a new post to supervise political education in schools) that the GLC should auction off art treasures held in trust by the public; the fact that Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party, discredited after his trial for conspiracy to murder his homosexual lover, applied for the post of race-relations adviser to the GLC (he was not appointed); and the triumphant election of a Social Democrat to the House of Commons in a by-election in South London (“Thank you Livingstone,” said the newsstand placards). Livingstone’s public image has not been helped by the glee with which satirists have seized on the few hobbies in his otherwise bleak private life—in particular, the collection of toads and salamanders that he keeps. According to an aide, these are “the perfect pets for a politician, since they not only dislike company but positively resent it, and since they also like to be fed irregularly.” There is now much ribald talk of Livingstone’s newt, a creature that unaccountably always causes helpless mirth in the average Briton.

The most painful problem of all for Livingstone has been Londoners’ reaction to the supplementary rate demands they received from the GLC in mid-October. The financing of local government expenditure is a complicated mixture of “rates” levied on domestic, business, and industrial residents, calculated according to a formula based on the size and nature of their property, and grants from central government, which are dispensed in proportion to local needs, assessed in the light of demographic and other factors (and expressed very much in this sort of language). Local authorities are also entitled to borrow in various ways. London residents receive a multiple demand, consisting of the rate levied by the borough in which they live, the Metropolitan Police rate, the Inner London Education Authority [ILEA] rate, and the GLC rate. Rate demands are issued in April, at the beginning of the new financial year, but local authorities have the power to issue supplementary rate demands, which is what the newly elected GLC did in October.

This time the supplementary rate was some 24.5 pence for every pound at which domestic property was rated (an increase of about 17.5 percent over the demand issued only six months earlier). Rates are collected by the boroughs. Conservative-controlled boroughs added a note of explanation to the rate demand, excusing its size and lamenting the GLC’s rapacity. The chairman of the Borough Council of Westminster declared that when he and his colleagues read this precept, their first inclination was to consign it to the wastepaper basket, and went on to suggest that ratepayers do the same. The letter that rate-payers in the Kensington and Chelsea Borough received from their chairman stated that “the GLC and the ILEA have required us to levy from you their supplementary rate. We cannot refuse, although we should clearly like to, as Parliament requires us to be their collecting agency.” The letter continued: “You may be tempted to ignore this demand. . . . Please be assured, however, that not one penny will be kept by this Council, which is continuing to practise the most stringent economies and keeping to its budget, which is the lowest of any Council in London. It will all go to County Hall in response to their most untimely demand.”

Labour-controlled boroughs, on the other hand, reminded householders of the advantages that would be brought by the new, if apparently costly, subsidies for London Transport—subsidies that had necessitated the levying of the supplementary rate. The GLC asked domestic rate-payers for an additional £180 million in 1980-1981 and non-domestic rate-payers for an extra £288 million. In theory, local authorities can pitch the rate as high as they wish; in fact, such habits topple them at election time. Furthermore, central government, seeking to trim what Mrs. Thatcher and her supporters regard as inflationary revenueraising and expenditure, has introduced legislation to curb the amount of money local authorities can demand, particularly from business and industry, and to require the holding of a referendum before a supplementary rate may be levied. Livingstone’s reply to this, displayed prominently and at no negligible expense in advertisements in national newspapers and in a new and scruffy tabloid. The Londoner (delivered free to 2.7 million homes at a cost per issue of £87,000), is that his mandate is “fresher” than that of central government, since his people were elected only a year or so ago whereas Mrs. Thatcher’s were elected in 1979. A more convincing line of argument is that customary ideas of local democracy are being destroyed by central government’s policy, but put Livingstone’s advertisements alongside the dejected apologies accompanying the London boroughs’ rate demands and one sees what a mess the whole system is in anyway.

Some Labour GLC councillors have threatened to go to prison rather than have their manifesto promises unfulfilled; others, especially those with assets that could be seized if the council were to find itself “surcharged” for illegal expenditure, mutter about resignation. There are prophecies that the GLC might find traditional lenders suddenly tightfisted; hitherto the council has been able to borrow on the security of its rates, but this practice might not continue. Here and there, Cassandras talk of the total abolition of the GLC, although the present Conservative Government, let alone Parliament and the civil servants in Whitehall, has by now had such a basinful of local-government legislation that it would probably shrink from finding time for more. In any case, it would be easier to whittle down the GLC’s functions in more subtle ways: most of its housing responsibilities have been handed over to the boroughs already; central government is unhappy with the present system of giving grants for transport, especially when they are used to subsidize fares rather than for long-term investment; a new kind of public police authority is likely to be established in the aftermath of Lord Scarman’s report on the Brixton riots; the fire brigade and other public-health and safety services could easily be rearranged; and even the Thames barrier is almost finished.

Livingstone seems unruffled by all this melancholy speculation. He has at least awakened those who live and work in London to the existence of the GLC; indeed, they rise each day rubbing their eyes in wonderment at his latest announcement. If Londoners are increasingly wringing their hands in exasperation as well, they can take solace in the fact that the intentions of Livingstone and his team are part of a coherent and long-nurtured philosophy. For, according to a radio interview he gave last autumn, Livingstone’s favorite book is, he says. The Dispossessed, a science-fiction story in which “all the anarchists leave the capitalist world, avoid the establishment of new bureaucracies, share in running things—a genuinely Socialist society. ”

—Janet Morgan

Janet Morgan is a London-based writer now at work on the authorized biography of Agatha Christie.