Review | Red Metropolis

Danny Schultz reviews Red Metropolis, the latest work by acclaimed political thinker and architectural critic Owen Hatherley. Schultz argues it provides an insightful history of radicalism within London, yet falls short in considering the importance of the working class struggles which make municipal socialism possible.

A London tower block featuring large graffiti proclaiming Fuck Boris
‘FUCK BORIS’ on the side of a tower block in London.

Owen Hatherley, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (London: Repeater Books, 2020), 276pp. £10.99.

The governance and administrative history of London is a surprisingly interesting topic, yet it is often neglected by the revolutionary left. Discussions about ‘Reformism’ and ‘Labourism’ can float up into an air of abstraction, where revolutionary formula fights revolutionary formula. But it doesn’t need to be like this. The very stones, lamp posts, and more of London, are all expressions of class politics. It’s easy to see which class is in the ascendancy in contemporary London. Just walk around the streets and count the tall buildings – not so much Goethe’s frozen music, as lumps of hard cash and capital solidified into concrete, glass, and steel. And yet it was not always so. London’s spaces have a particular story of workers’ movements, social movements, and political responses.

The main response which Owen Hatherley describes in Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Governance of London is that of the Labour Party. Red Metropolis is neat and concise, with photographs and references to housing estates, making it possible to organise your own tour of the housing which local authorities once built. There are still a great deal of these estates about, but sometimes it’s necessary to learn how to see them. Hatherley’s book is useful guide to do so, and gives some explanations as to how they came to be.

From the Board to the LCC

The story begins in 1855, with the Metropolitan Board of Works. The Board was set up to replace the 300 or so different organisations which were trying to deliver a range of services to the rapidly growing city. There were immense increases in population and industries accompanied by accelerating technical development and changing ideas. An industrial working class developed and many of that class ingested – and helped create – the ideas of socialism, feminism, communism, anarchism, and utopianism. Those same workers organised mass unions and their own political parties. Some of these strands would be woven together to form the Labour Party.

The Labour Party has always been an organisation at odds with itself, a curious push-me pull-you type of beast in which there is often a lot of struggle going on but without much output . However it has had flashes of inspiration when it has delivered real reforms with considerable working-class support. Hatherley points out that from 1947 to 1965, the Labour Party in London won more than 50 percent of the vote in every election it stood in.

Hatherley describes how in 1922, thirty Poplar councillors were jailed for refusing to make the poor pay for the economic chaos at the end of the First World War. Their slogan was ‘Better to Break the Law than Break the Poor’. In Bermondsey (one of the five ‘red’ boroughs – the other four were Battersea, Deptford, Poplar, Woolwich) socialist activists and the reformers Ada and Albert Salter worked to implement their vision of a Garden City in one of the poorest parts of south London. A brave and ambitious plan which led to some excellent housing being built (now being privately sold for around £800,000 apiece). This radicalism was painted with a broad brush and included the planting of thousands of trees and flower beds. Ada Salter’s Bermondsey Beautification Committee led to the development of the Green Belt around London. The mother’s park she helped created in Southwark remains a well-loved and well-used service.

But as ever with the Labour Party, no sooner did radicalism break out than a right wing counter-radicalism emerged. In the 1930s London Labour Party this assumed the human form of Herbert Morrison. Previously he had claimed to be a Marxist and to his credit had been a conscientious objector during the First World War. But he loathed the direct action of ‘Poplarism’ and once ‘in power’ was virulently against the left socialists within the Labour Party and the Communists outside it. The trickier problem for anyone trying to understand reformism is that Morrison could claim to be a relatively effective administrator who ‘got things done’. Housing, health, and education were all improved under his watch in the 1930s. He was actively involved in the creation of London Transport in 1933, a nationalisation of competing private services.  This was a low-cost integrated and efficient mass transport system that also created a unique design style which continues to work – both in terms of function and aesthetic pleasure.

Good quality low-rent housing was built all over London and a great deal can still be seen. The reformist wing of the Labour Party could point to those achievements and use them as justification for a top-down, administrative-bureaucratic approach to social change. Morrison used the slogan ‘Labour Gets Things Done’ and claimed that Labour would ‘build the Tories out of London’. The radical left and the far left lacked these bricks and mortar examples. It was not only housing. London, thanks in part to Labour Party governance, had one of the best health services in Britain in the 1930s predating the NHS by several years. Schools were improved in wide variety of ways including an end to corporal punishment. Morrison remains a controversial figure, but Hatherley rightly describes his importance in both the history of the Labour Party and a certain type of municipal and welfare reform. And there is no one in the current Labour Party with this sort of aggressive, swaggering, and combative approach to fighting the Tories.

Between the GLC and the Mayoralty

In 1964 the London County Council was abolished and the new Greater London Council (GLC) created. A rather inept, corrupt governance by the Tories marked its terms of office – although it did manage to put up council rents. In 1981 Ken Livingstone and a new layer of socialists were elected and set out with a certain type of radicalism. This was not without success, helping to break down the racism, sexism, and homophobia which large numbers of Londoners regularly experienced. To get some measure of this, it’s worth pointing out that in the 1977, the National Front received 5.3 percent of the vote. But there was little house building – in fact, council housing began to be sold off at an accelerating rate. And the GLC of Livingstone and his supports had at best an ambivalent relationship with the working class, which was often downright hostile. That was, and is, fundamentally problematic in terms of socialism and reform. Once Thatcher decided to abolish the GLC, using a tardy and flimsy policy document to do so, there were no forces to make a defence. Livingstone’s bluster ended with an unheard whisper.

But while Hatherley discusses the GLC, its cultural activities and the ‘New Left’ (which included Diane Abbot and John McDonnell) he misses something very important. Where had the anti-racist policies of the GLC come from? An intense struggle had started in the sixties in Britain with Black and Asian workers fighting for better pay and conditions and union recognition; often against opposition from white trade union officials, but frequently supported by revolutionary socialists. This history still lacks its historian. Hatherley’s book could have done with a little more of the raucous belligerence of street movements which often helps shape committee room thinking in unexpected ways.

Back to Ken Livingstone. He was certainly no George Lansbury, nor was he Herbert Morrison. There was no direct action and jail terms, nor was there bricks and mortar reformism either. In his later incarnation as the Mayor his attitude to the built environment of the city reflected not a commitment to public housing but that of the dominant idea of neo-liberalism.  As Mayor, Livingstone helped create the conditions for the blocks of glass which have a triffid-like propensity to endlessly replicate across London. What we don’t get in Red Metropolis is a paragraph or two of the massive restructuring of capital which begins in the 1980s and the expansion of capital and the drive of capital accumulation as the real cause of the march of tall buildings.

Hatherley’s brings his book up to date with the electoral defeat of Labour in December 2019 and the sense of demoralisation and confusion this created on parts of the left. In many ways his book is a response to that defeat and an attempt to understand it. Months later there was yet more anxiety when it became clear that Sadiq Khan would not breeze to victory in the mayoral election as many expected. Khan has set out the London Plan which Hatherley discusses; and he points out that it is under a fierce assault by the Tories. But what will Khan’s response and defence be?

Class Struggle Urban History

What is missing in the book is a recognition that the conflict between capital and labour is the defining tension in London. This conflict is never just at the point of production; it is in housing, the provision of health, transport systems, rates of taxation, conditions of work, pensions and sick pay, and the delivery of broadband, gas, electricity, and water. Most of the time the conflict is individualised and goes on out of sight, a million interactions every day when workers feel they don’t get paid enough, the dread of bills and rent payments, long queues for over-stretched NHS services, the petty tyrannies in workplaces, eye-watering costs of commuting, job insecurity, anti-union employers, and the injustices and humiliations of selling one’s labour power each day. Not the stuff of focus groups, but the stuff of revolutions.

Hatherley has written a book with the subtitle ‘Socialism and the Government of London’ but it is a certain type of socialism which is discussed. There is little discussion about socialism as a revolutionary movement led by the people outside city halls. This creates a partial reading of history which weakens the overall story he tells. There is a great deal missing which would help understand the development of municipal government in London and the contradictions and tensions involved.

The period between 1910 – 1914 was characterised by a seething mass of workers discontent with the added frisson of the militant suffragettes and the turmoil in Ireland over Home Rule. The General Strike of 1926 involved troops being stationed throughout the dock system of London, the end of the Second World War involved not just an election of a Labour Government, but a huge shift to the left; supported by well-disciplined battle-hardened young soldiers. With shortages of housing throughout London and Britain there were active appropriations of empty housing by those who needed it. ‘Squatting’ as it became known was an important part of people taking direct action to resolve their housing needs for several decades in London. In 1960 a rent strike in St Pancras was a spark for ferocious rioting by local working class people.

Hatherley’s architectural writing is always worth reading. But in Red Metropolis he uses socialism to mean the practices of the Labour Party and this is very debatable in both theory and practice. London has a rich history of working class struggles – industrially and politically – most of which have taken outside Parliament and often without the support of the Labour Party itself. The working class has only a peripheral role in Hatherley’s story; as either individuals who become politicians or as objects of housing policy. There is no sense of agency.

Hatherley concludes with proposals for a more radical reformism – certainly more radical than anything of the current leadership of the Labour Party. He also argues that the left should look to Lansbury rather than Morrison, stating that if legal routes are blocked, then ‘better to break the law than the poor’. This is a powerful sentiment. But his appeal is to the left of the Labour Party, not the working class forces without which not a bus wheel would turn, nor a dirty office be cleaned or a parcel delivered. The working class as having the power of self-emancipation is important; not just in resolving ‘the housing question’ but also as to what type of urban planning and aesthetic could emerge in a city freed of the oppressive grip of capital accumulation.

Hatherley has written an interesting and lively book on the history of municipal socialism and it is a good and useful overview. But by leaving out the forces within which municipal socialism developed it means that only half the song is played. It’s like a jazz quintet without a drummer or a trumpeter. The drums of capital and the trumpet playing of the working class are missing. The song he writes misses both beats and counterpoint. But in a way that inadvertently sums up the endemic problem with municipal socialism – an underestimation of both the power of capital, and that of its opposition, the potential power of the working class.

 

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