In the interwar years, the Labour Party used London as an example to the country of what a socialist government could provide.
And how to wrest housing from the grip of slum landlords.
The Labour Party became the largest political force in inner London—the area then covered by the London County Council (LCC)—in 1919, and it has remained so for a century, a ‘heartland’ at least as crucial as the North East or South Wales.
Labour’s first twenty years as the major party of the capital saw a pitched battle between its left and centre, which the centre eventually won. But that battle was along lines that are deeply unfamiliar today, with the ‘centre’ standing firmly for nationalisation, council housing, and pacifism. Given that inner London has been Labour’s most enduring success, we would do well to understand how that red base was first built.
After the removal of the property franchise on voting, Labour won control of most of the poorer boroughs in London in the 1919 general election. It would lose many of them in 1922, except for a hardcore of mostly south London strongholds, known at the time as the ‘Five Red Boroughs’ — Battersea, Bermondsey, Deptford, Poplar, and Woolwich.
While the LCC itself was out of reach for the moment due to the electoral system—whose arithmetic favoured the ruling Tories and the expense of Labour and a Liberal Party in sharp decline—these five became the venue for the experiments in an aggressive, class-conscious local socialism. Four of them were respectable, non-conformist factory districts with a make-up similar to the industrial North, with co-operatives, strong trade unions, sports clubs and other self-organised working-class bodies. The big exception was Poplar, one of the bleakest outposts of ‘Outcast London’.
Poplar’s councillors, upon taking power, noticed something curious about how the London County Council was funded. Each borough paid the same amount into the LCC, irrespective of how capable they were of raising the funds through local taxation — so that, for instance, Kensington’s contribution was the same as Poplar’s.
The Poplar Labour Party was heterogeneous, reflecting how much Labour politics had not settled into its familiar form. The council was led by the Independent Labour Party’s George Lansbury—editor at the time of the popular socialist Daily Herald—with significant roles played by Communists such as the new Alderman—the Jewish Marxist Minnie Lansbury (nee Glassman, she was George’s daughter-in-law)—and Susan Lawrence, a former Conservative LCC politician who was pushed to the socialist left by her grim experience of London local government.
They were united on an ambitious programme for this desperately poor area. Mass unemployment, combined with the legacy of appalling housing, casual dockside labour, and brutally means-tested and meagre state benefits, needed immediate redress. A large spending programme on poor relief, housebuilding, and healthcare, with all workers at the council to be paid full union rates, would be funded by simply refusing to pay the rate to the LCC.
This was, of course, illegal. ‘Better to Break the Law than to Break the Poor’ was their slogan. In 1922, thirty Poplar councillors were jailed. They were released after six weeks, upon major public pressure, though only twenty-nine came out — Minnie Lansbury died of pneumonia in Holloway Prison.
The Early Herbert Morrison
The minority Labour government’s Local Government Act of 1929 brought in reforms which answered Poplar’s specific grievance, but there was much more here at stake. As Noreen Branson pointed out in her account of ‘Poplarism’, although ‘disagreements appeared to centre round the issue of immediate tactics, in reality they went deeper, embracing two closely related questions: what was meant by socialism and how to achieve it’; that is, whether by ‘constitutional’ means or by ‘direct action’.
Poplar’s main opponent here was Herbert Morrison, the unquestioned boss of London Labour between the wars. Morrison remains one of the most poorly understood Labour politicians, and Labour’s transformation from a social movement into a party of government owes more to him than perhaps any other figure — particularly given the fact that his record in running London from 1934 onwards was so clearly more successful than that of Ramsay Macdonald in running the country in the disastrous minority governments of 1924 and 1929–31.
Morrison, a policeman’s son from Stockwell, had been an evangelical member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and then the Independent Labour Party in the 1910s. He had also been a Conscientious Objector in the First World War. Due to a childhood infection he was blind in one eye, and could have been exempted from service for this — instead, he insisted on refusing to fight on socialist grounds.
According to historian Graham Taylor, the young Morrison ‘could quote Marx at length’, and did so in court; on being asked what his religion was by the board at his hearing as a Conscientious Objector, he replied ‘I belong to the ILP and Socialism is my religion’ — and therefore, he could not in all conscience support a capitalist war.
In the 1920s, he became mayor of Hackney, chair of the London Labour Party, and a ruthlessly committed administrator. Morrison’s hostility to Poplar was based on trying to ensure its illegal ‘direct action’ politics didn’t become official Labour policy across the capital. In this he succeeded — something aided by his expulsion of no less than twelve different local Labour Parties in the mid-1920s, in each case due to the significant presence of Communist Party members.
Party of Government
Morrison’s rationale for this was that Labour had to ‘prove itself’ to the electorate across the capital by acting ‘responsibly’ in government. Morrison was intent on taking control of the machine of social reform that the LCC had built up between 1889 and 1907, and making it work for a gradual, constitutional transition to socialism. Poplar, meanwhile, was, in Branson’s words, ‘deliberately refusing to man the machine anymore.’
This dichotomy would return again in the 1980s. Poplar would be vindicated—its total opposition to the means testing of benefits would become a consensus with the Beveridge Report—but Morrison wanted to win elections, in the here and now. This was a paradox. The fear of Poplarism seems to have genuinely contributed to Labour’s mixed fortunes in the twenties beyond the ‘Five Red Boroughs.’
A constant media campaign claimed that ‘equalisation of the rates meant equalisation of wealth,’ and that Poplarism was communism in action. This seems to have spooked an often small-c conservative working class outside inner London’s red bases. Yet Poplarism was phenomenally successful in Poplar itself, where the councillors were regarded as heroes, and won enormous majorities.
Labour finally took the LCC in 1934, and held onto it for the next thirty-three years, when it was replaced with the Greater London Council (GLC). The Labour project that would unfold was an explicit response to the colossal defeat of Labour at the general election of 1931, when the Macdonald government’s conservative response to the Great Depression—austerity and ‘fiscal discipline’—led to the party splitting in two, with much of the cabinet forming a National Government with the Tories.
After this debacle, Labour’s rule of the LCC was an attempt by Morrison to prove that Labour could in fact be a viable party of government on a large scale without abandoning social reform. Accordingly, Morrison’s administration of London was of enormous importance in defining what ‘socialism’—which he much later defined, notoriously, as ‘what Labour governments do’—would mean in practice for the Labour Party.
The nationalisations of 1945 were tested a decade earlier, in Morrison’s creation of London Transport, as were its mass council housing policies and its creation of health centres and hospitals free at the point of use. Even some of the radical pageantry of the radical GLC of the 1980s can be seen as a continuation of Morrison projects such as ‘Peace Day’ or the Festival of Britain.
Due to his generally conservative influence as a minister in the Attlee government—when this one-time Marxist Conscientious Objector reinvented himself as an openly imperialist Foreign Secretary and enthusiast for what he called the ‘Jolly Old Empire’—Morrison’s name has usually been mud on the Labour left.
Morrison’s poor reputation on the left means that some of his achievements have been simply ignored — Londoners had healthcare free at the point of use over a decade before the NHS, but in socialist folk memory, socialised healthcare was South Wales’ gift to Britain. However, the original call of the London Labour Party, when it was formed in 1915, was for ‘Home Rule for London’, a ‘Parliament’, not a town hall, as against what Morrison himself called attempts by the Tory government to rule the capital as a ‘crown colony’. It would not manage to expand its actual legal powers under Morrison’s rule.
Much of the animus centres on what Morrison’s role in defining what nationalisation—and hence, ‘socialism’—meant in practice. The London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) was Morrison’s answer to that question. Nationalisation of London’s transport was first mooted by Morrison during the 1929–31 Labour government, when he served as Transport Minister.
It meant merging buses, boats, trams, and the two tube companies — the Metropolitan Railway and the Underground Group, against the opposition of the former. Most of the management of the nationalised body would be taken from the Underground Group, and it would be chaired by its Anglo-American boss, Lord Ashfield.
The Underground Group’s branding—the ’roundel’, Edward Johnston’s typeface, modernist poster campaigns, and hauntingly elegant station designs by the architect Charles Holden, all devised by Ashfield’s second-in-command, the Ruskinian socialist Frank Pick—would soon become the face of the entire LPTB, or as it was usually called for short, London Transport.
Rather than ‘direct popular control’, as had been hoped for, this was a body with trade union leaders on the board, but no means of workers directly influencing its management, except by strikes — regarded with suspicion by Morrison at the best of times. Yet one of the reasons why Morrison’s version of nationalisation became party policy, aside from the mythic inertia of ‘Labourism’, is that the nationalised entity he created, London Transport, was very successful.
It was quick, clean, efficient, and, importantly, beautiful, with its new buildings influenced equally by continental modernist architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement, and with everyone from Man Ray to Moholy-Nagy designing posters for the nationalised tubes and trams.
It wasn’t workers’ control, but nobody who has ever been on a march or picket and seen an RMT contingent carrying a banner with Arnos Grove tube station embroidered on it and the word SOCIALISM below, could doubt its importance to London trade unionists. It is easy to see why this was a model adopted by the national party. Not all the nationalised industries Morrison created in its image after 1945 would be so successful.
The other crucial policy of the LCC under Morrison was the creation of a green belt to stop suburban development. This limiting of London was the first step in a process of planned shrinkage, with working-class Londoners encouraged to move after 1945 to a series of New Towns in the Home Counties: Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, Basildon, Harlow, Bracknell, Crawley, and Hatfield, the brainchild of one of Morrison’s close collaborators and rivals at the LCC, Lewis Silkin.
These were on the self-contained, light-industrial Garden City model that had long been a Fabian cause celebre. Morrison himself had briefly lived in the first Garden City at Letchworth, and there met his first wife Margaret Kent, a worker in the Spirella Corset Factory. This enthusiasm for moving workers into Hertfordshire sits oddly with the apocryphal, oft-quoted Morrison line that he intended the LCC to ‘build the Tories out of London.’
Little to this effect was done in the years Morrison ran the capital, before he joined the coalition government of 1940 as Home Secretary. Instead, as in Vienna, the major effort was in wresting inner-city housing out of the hands of slum landlords. Tenement flats were bigger and better built, and rents were sharply reduced for those coming into council housing from slums, which the LCC was now clearing on a large scale. Much of inner London is still defined by the modest, sturdy brown brick and tile four-five storey deck-access flats—a little modernist, a little Georgian—built under Morrison.
Above all, Morrison showed a mastery of publicity and propaganda very rarely seen on the British left. A love of festivals and pageantry went alongside an attempt to make what can still sometimes be a rather grim, grey metropolis into a lighter, more pleasurable city to live in.
Lidos were opened in public parks all over London—though a proposal to keep them open all night was vetoed by Morrison because ‘they’ll be fucking each other’—and surprisingly given his later allegiances, the LCC of the 1930s renamed Armistice Day as Peace Day, Empire Day as Commonwealth Day, abolished workhouses, and banned any military presence and corporal punishment from schools.
This explicit attempt to prove that Labour could govern—and could govern in the South—was highly electorally successful. In 1937, Labour won 51% of the LCC vote, and in 1946, a remarkable 70% of LCC seats, with the Communist Party beating the Liberals into third place. Labour would not score below 50% of the vote in the LCC between 1949 and the formation of the much larger GLC in 1964.
Getting Things Done
After the war, Morrison’s last London project, as a cabinet minister under Attlee, was the transformation of the Lambeth riverfront into the 1951 Festival of Britain, a lightweight, colourful showcase of a future modernist, socialist Britain, (again, apocryphally) denounced by Winston Churchill as ‘three-dimensional socialist propaganda.’
Initially modelled on the more classical Gorky Park in Moscow, it became a showcase of the London County Council’s new Architects’ Department, whose designs were suddenly revolutionised by an influx of idealistic, often emigre European, and usually just-demobbed young architects fresh out of the architecture schools, with the modernists Leslie Martin, Peter Moro, and Robert Matthew leading the design team. Their first major project was the Royal Festival Hall, an egalitarian, spatially extravagant modernist public building that was the first of its kind in Britain.
Outside of comprehensive schools and the Architects’ Department—both often staffed by Communists, otherwise purged from the LCC machine—there were few new ideas in the LCC after Morrison. Most LCC politicians of this period are obscure — very few of its millions of visitors will have the slightest idea that the Hayward Gallery, part of the Southbank Centre built on the Festival of Britain site, is named after Isaac Hayward, Morrison’s longest-serving successor as head of London’s government, who ruled from 1947 to 1965.
‘Labour gets things done!’ was Morrison’s slogan in the interwar years, and they did. He and his followers left London a much better, fairer city than the one they inherited. But in the process, they had transformed the lively, messy, fissiparous, romantic, and revolutionary social movement that was the London Labour Party of 1919 into a machine that won elections and built houses, but increasingly lacked any accountability or social base. It would not fully regain that until a wave of new energy came from the Left.
Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune. His latest book, Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, is now out from Repeater Books.