Between 1981 and 1986, Ken Livingstone led the most experimental, controversial and influential city governments in modern British history. Author Andy Beckett uncovers the forgotten triumphs and disasters of Livingstone's Greater London Council in his book 'Promised You a Miracle'. The following is an extract from the book:
Of all the risky experiments in early 1980s Britain, cultural, economic or political, one attracted particularly wide derision. On 17 February 1982 the usually polite Guardian published a mocking three paragraph item about ‘a new wheeze’ from the spectacularly unpopular, seemingly doomed political curiosity that was Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. ‘This is a Womens [sic] Committee,’ explained the unnamed journalist, ‘which will monitor all council activities to check that they are looking at things from a woman’s as well as a man’s point of view.’ The report continued even more condescendingly: ‘Sexism – albeit of a cheery and trivial sort still lurks at County Hall . . . Valerie Wise, one of the councillors most enthusiastic for the scheme, wants “a committee that is going to be able to interfere with every decision of the council”.’
By 1982, for journalists, even some Guardian ones, feminism was an old story. Women’s Lib, in its modern British incarnation, had been going for a dozen years now. Some veterans of the struggle were slipping away to do other things, like Anna Coote with her new television career at Diverse Production. Meanwhile even feminists with fresh campaigning ideas, such as the peace camp at Greenham, struggled to get the attention of the media and Britain’s overwhelmingly male politicians sometimes, even, of the ideologically curious and unusually gender conscious Livingstone himself. ‘We had no proposal for the women’s committee in the 1981GLC manifesto,’ he told me, despite the document’s hundreds of pages and wide-ranging ambitions. ‘We had a proposal to set up an ethnic minorities committee, and on the back of that, people like Valerie said we should do something for women. So it was an afterthought.’
In February 1982 Wise was twenty-seven. She had been a GLC councillor, her first elected office, for barely a year. Tall and slightly gawky, her narrow face dominated by her trademark circular, thick-rimmed glasses, she spoke in a youthful, upbeat, slightly grating voice, with non-London tinges to her vowels (she had also lived in the Midlands and the north). She was still in awe of her mother, Audrey, a political prodigy herself who had been a prominent feminist from the late 1960s onwards, and a stubbornly outspoken left-wing Labour MP in the late 1970s. ‘I feel very privileged to have been the daughter of Audrey Wise,’ Valerie said, with oddly stiff affection, when I interviewed her in 2013. Two walls of her living room were given over to volumes of Hansard covering her late mother’s years in Parliament.
Socialism was the prime political faith passed from mother to daughter. ‘I’ve called myself a feminist for some time, but coming to the GLC has meant my first contact with the women’s movement,’ Valerie admitted to the feminist magazine Spare Rib in July 1982, two months after the women’s committee had officially started work. Her frankness was either naive, faux-naive, or immensely self-confident – or most likely a mixture of all three. ‘It’s been an amazing learning process for me, and I hope that’s going to be mutual.’
In 1982 Livingstone’s GLC badly needed a new purpose. ‘What we’d really wanted to do was build housing and modernize the transport system, and those we were blocked on,’ he told me. The council’s attempt to revitalize the capital’s economy and make it more socially just, through the Greater London Enterprise Board, was proceeding modestly at best. Livingstone was trying to wean himself off giving endless provocative quotes to hostile journalists, his original approach of leadership by outrage having proved increasingly counterproductive. The euphoria of the precocious London Labour left’s seizure of the GLC in 1981 – ‘London’s Ours!’ – seemed very distant a year on. As two of the many young, questing left-wing thinkers and activists who joined the Livingstone administration, Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright, wrote in the slightly chastened 1987 book they co-edited about their experience, A Taste of Power: ‘No one in the GLC thought we were creating socialism now.’
This GLC rethink was part of a wider retreat by the British left from 1982 onwards, as Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy began to lose momentum after his failure to win the Labour deputy leadership, and Thatcherism finally started to create a new economy as well as destroy the old one. But if ‘Red Ken’ had given up on building socialism in one city, his GLC still had enough power, money and chutzpah for a different radical project.
This was a new relationship between the state and the citizen, and between the increasingly disparate groups of citizens in London. It would have implications for the whole of Britain. And it would rival, and in some ways undermine, the psychological revolution being driven through by the Thatcherites.
The idea of the women’s committee had crystallized during 1981. When Wise arrived at the GLC, she knew a lot more about politics and bureaucracies than her innocent manner suggested. She had worked for her mother Audrey in Parliament. She had also worked for a groundbreaking group of union shop stewards at the military-industrial conglomerate Lucas, who sidestepped the company management to develop worker-designed green technologies and other non-military products. Finally, during her curries in Tooting with Livingstone and Michael Ward, she had helped arrange the left’s seizure of County Hall.
When she became a GLC councillor, Wise told me briskly, ‘Because of my involvement with the Lucas shop stewards, I became vice-chair of Mike Ward’s industry and employment committee straightaway. Industry and employment were key parts of our manifesto. It was one of the most important GLC committees.’ She nodded with satisfaction. ‘I was in the right place at the right time.’
At industry and employment she became interested in how the GLC might alter the London economy to better suit women. She told Spare Rib that she ‘tried meeting regularly with women[’s groups] outside the GLC but . . . it just didn’t work. The only way to get a proper strategy, to ensure things happen, is by a committee.’ Otherwise, ‘You get swallowed up by the system . . . becoming “the statutory woman” on things . . . just a front.’ She wrote a proposal for a women’s committee. She remembered, ‘I went to Ken, and he was very receptive. I put it immediately to the Labour Group [of councillors].’ She smiled: ‘It was hard for them not to agree to it, given that there was already an ethnic minorities committee.’
You can hear Andy Beckett in conversation with Ken Livingstone in Red Ken's GLC: Loonies or Visionaries? on Thursday 8 October.
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