Red London in Tory Britain

Few major cities have welcomed the world’s oligarchs and kleptocrats like London has. Yet nestled within the neoliberal dystopia, London’s neighborhoods reflect the long and ongoing struggle to transform Britain’s capital into a self-managed, social-democratic municipality for its residents.

Alton West in London is among the greatest social housing developments of the twentieth century. (Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a piece of unsolicited advice for campaigners and council members working to shape the cities in which they live: don’t be like London. No other capital has been so welcoming to the world’s oligarchs and kleptocrats. No other metropolis has been as thoroughly hollowed out by vacant second or third homes. No other city has created such a well-oiled machine for simultaneously exploiting and displacing working-class households. London is so frequently invoked as a global icon that it’s easy to miss how often it sets a bad example.

And yet the single most important fact about London is that while it is unjust, it is not reducible to its injustices. The city has a democratic energy that can be seen throughout its history. This is the spirit that animates the activist campaigns, community projects, self-managed spaces, and subcultural experiments found in every borough. The glitzy megaprojects and loopy skyscrapers that have sprouted up across London since the 1980s are really just variations on the generic architecture of wealth. It’s the ordinary neighborhoods, everyday streets, public spaces, and council estates that are the true heart of London’s urbanity.

The city’s enduring egalitarian spirit is apparent in the long history of Londoners trying to transform their city into a self-managed, social-democratic municipality. It is this London that is the subject of Owen Hatherley’s new history of municipal socialism in the British capital, Red Metropolis. The book appears at a moment when the prospects both for the Left and for cities are dimmer than they have been in years. Between the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, the Conservative Party’s trouncing of Labour in the 2019 election, the resurgence of far-right extremism, and the ongoing agonies of housing insecurity and precarious work, the mood in London is exceptionally grim.

But municipalism has long been connected to the experience of opposition. Vienna in the 1920s was a socialist island in a reactionary sea. Spanish municipalists struggled for years against hostile central governments. In London, Hatherley notes that “the capital’s two most extensive and radical experiments in municipal socialism, in the 1930s and 1980s, were direct responses by the local Labour Party to catastrophic national defeats.” When it has been beaten at the national scale, one of the Left’s responses has been to demonstrate on the local scale that another world is possible.

The Politics of Municipalism

What is municipalism? It is a political stance as well as an approach to shaping the built environment. It represents a commitment to the provision of housing, infrastructure, and public space for all, using democratically responsive and resolutely public means. But municipalism is not just a byword for the urban welfare state. In its socialist versions, municipalism consists of concrete efforts at non-reformist urban reform.

Politically, socialist municipalism is fundamentally different than the elitist, real estate–allied stance toward urban development that has come to be known as “urbanism,” even if some of their rhetoric overlaps. Whereas urbanists, following groundwork laid by think tanks and consulting firms, seek to use technocratic means to create a business-friendly city, municipalists, building from social movements and labor unions, seek to use democratic means to create a socialized city. Urbanism wants to make cities safe for the middle class, which it sees as the driving force in urban history. In contrast, municipalism wants to build a universalist city for all, with a strong emphasis on the working class.

To be sure, municipalism has usually emerged within capitalism and bears the contradictions of any such political project. Municipalism always represents a cross-class and cross-communal alliance, but the pieces of this alliance do not always hang together. And the lines between system-challenging versions of municipalism and hierarchy-legitimizing forms of urbanism are not always clear. But at its best, municipalism aims not to perfect capitalist urbanization but to transform and overcome it, which is one reason why neoliberalism and municipalism have been enemies ever since Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek recoiled from what they saw during the interwar period in Vienna. Municipalism is urban development direct action that seeks to build, here and now, an actually-existing postcapitalist city.

Municipalism’s historic touchstones are radical democratic urban governments like the Paris Commune of 1871; Red Vienna, which lasted from 1918 to 1934; Red Bologna in the 1970s and the broader Take Over the City movement in Italy at the time; and contemporary civic platforms like Barcelona en Comú. But municipalism today also looks toward less institutionalized projects, such as the original community land trust model created by civil rights activists in the American South; the Provos of 1960s Amsterdam; the Zapatistas; and housing- and land-oriented groups like the South African shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.

London is not always on the historical map of municipalist hotspots. But Hatherley’s book makes the case that it should be. This case is also made in Tom Cordell’s 2010 film Utopia London, John Boughton’s book and website Municipal Dreams, and other recent excavations of the city’s history of public housing and architecture. Yet Red Metropolis offers the most detailed and distilled version. Embedded within the establishment redoubt, former imperial capital, and current world finance hub is a social-democratic — at times avowedly socialist — metropolis struggling to take power. Not only is an alternative London possible; alternative Londons have actually been built, and their legacies might ironically be part of why the reigning neoliberal version isn’t facing total collapse.

The Rise of Municipal London

Most of the municipal formations that have ruled London have not been oriented toward transforming the social order but maintaining it. Since the late Victorian period, London’s governance has been complex and multi-scalar. Administration has been split between smaller local authorities of a few hundred thousand inhabitants and a larger but weaker governmental body operating at the urban scale. Political actors at these two scales have usually had an antagonistic relationship with what is in fact the most powerful state institution shaping London: the national government in Westminster. Urban politics in London is shaped by the changing relationships between these various embodiments of the state at different levels and scales. Each of these arrangements has supported a different version of the municipalist project, with widely varying results.

The origins of municipal London can be found in a secretive, unelected public organization. The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was set up by Parliament in 1855 to build the infrastructure that was badly needed by the rapidly growing but politically fractured conurbation. Under Chief Engineer Joseph Bazalgette, the tax-financed MBW embarked on large-scale engineering projects, including an extensive sewage system and the Thames Embankment.

The MBW also enacted a smaller-scale version of the forced rationalization and embourgeoisement of Paris carried out by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, destroying working-class and poor neighborhoods in central London and replacing them with broad boulevards like Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, and Southwark Street, and widening many others. Operating in the service of financial and political elites, the MBW may have built some important public works, but it had no democratic mechanisms. It eventually became synonymous with corruption.

In 1889, the scandal-ridden MBW was replaced by the London County Council (LCC), which was the first elected municipal body to govern London. The LCC pursued progressive municipalism, with occasional forays into a more social-democratic sort of city-making. Its Works Department — denounced as “communism in London” by the Times — sponsored and directly created substantial infrastructure and public buildings, including educational and transport facilities and a gigantic local government headquarters. But the LCC is best remembered today for its housing.

Beginning in 1890 with what is often regarded as the UK’s first public housing development, the Boundary Estate, the LCC initiated a massive program of state-operated building that transformed London’s housing system. Some LCC developments were “cottages estates” arranged along garden-suburb lines. Becontree, built between 1921 and 1935 beyond the County of London’s borders, was one of such developments, and at the time was the largest public housing development in the world. Some LCC estates that were built some years later are considered among the greatest social housing of the twentieth century, like Alton West in Roehampton, designed in the 1950s by a team led by the architect Rosemary Stjernstedt.

The LCC period was nothing if not complicated. Local boroughs pursued their own municipalist programs concurrent with the larger-scale LCC projects. There were some exquisite urban interventions, such as housing in the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury designed by the heroic socialist immigrant architect Berthold Lubetkin, and the Finsbury Health Centre, also designed by Lubetkin which served as a kind of local, futuristic precursor to the National Health Service.

The LCC era also featured some genuine acts of municipal radicalism, like the Rates Rebellion, when George Lansbury, then Mayor of Poplar, led a revolt against unequal state support for social welfare. Along with twenty-nine other councillors, Lansbury was jailed as part of this protest (he would subsequently become leader of the Labour Party in 1932). Additionally, the Metropolitan Borough of Battersea elected London’s first black mayor, the Pan-Africanist John Archer, and sent the Indian-born communist Shapurji Saklatvala to Parliament.

But these more radical initiatives were undertaken by local authorities, not the LCC. In this period, as in others, intra-municipal tensions were strong, with conflict between centralization and local autonomy, gradualism and militancy, and democracy and technocracy. Lansbury was opposed by LCC leader Herbert Morrison, who thought that Lansbury’s militancy brought the Labour Party and local government into disrepute. And the LCC’s housing and infrastructure programs showed limitations of their own, failing to house the poorest Londoners and displacing some working-class households to peripheral estates.

Yet much of the impressive cityscape that the LCC did create is still visible today across the capital. In addition to the many LCC housing blocks that are still in use, Hatherley observes that the complex of cultural venues on the South Bank, created by the LCC’s Architects’ Department as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, represents a very different civic center than the business-focused space in the City of London or the state- and royalty-focused center of Westminster.

Perhaps more significantly, the LCC ensured the emergence of London as a polycentric urban region that, while traditional east-west and north-south inequalities persisted, did not adopt patterns of severe urban segregation that were common elsewhere. Hatherley notes that postwar London managed to avoid “the Parisian model of a banlieue, the creation of a segregated — later, racialised — working-class periphery…. There is no district of London, outside of aristocratic Belgravia and Mayfair, that does not have council estates of significant size.”

Greater London Municipalism

The 1964 abolition of the LCC and its replacement with the much larger Greater London Council (GLC), as well as a reorganization of local authorities, was intended as another realignment of the urbanized region with the municipal boundaries that it had superseded. Through the 1970s, under both the Tories and Labour, the GLC was a bastion of what can be seen as late Keynesianism.

It built a number of notable examples of public housing, such as the famous Robin Hood Gardens estate designed by Alison and Peter Smithson; the Cheltenham Estate designed by Ernő Goldfinger, which includes the now iconic Trellick Tower; the medina-like Odhams Walk; and the modernist new town Thamesmead, begun under the LCC but completed firmly in line with GLC ideas. But the best public housing in London in the 1960s and ’70s was again constructed by local authorities, such as Dawson’s Heights, a hilltop housing block designed like a modernist ziggurat by Kate Macintosh of the London Borough of Southwark’s architecture department, or the humane, high-density designs by Neave Brown for the London Borough of Camden under Chief Architect Sydney Cook.

The Greater London Council (GLC) built a number of notable examples of public housing, such as the famous Robin Hood Gardens estate. (seier+seier / Flickr)

In 1981, Labour assumed control and steered the GLC toward what Hatherley characterizes as New Left municipalism. Led by Ken Livingstone and employing major figures on the London left like Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Valerie Wise, Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, and Doreen Massey, the 1980s GLC was egalitarian, redistributionist, and immersed in urban culture.

The GLC introduced some promising experiments in alternative urban planning. The Greater London Enterprise Board, for example, headed by visionary engineer and trade unionist Mike Cooley, was tasked with creating “state monopolies based on workers’ control and workers’ self-management,” and pioneered a democratized approach to industrial policy. The GLC also supported Coin Street Community Builders, ensconcing cooperative housing on the South Bank.

Although even today it is sometimes invoked as an object of mockery, the GLC’s cultural program was a significant official affirmation of some of London’s oppositional cultures and subcultures. The GLC sponsored murals memorializing anti-fascism in Whitechapel, honoring multiculturalism in Dalston, and protesting nuclear war in New Cross. It published pamphlets such as Tackling Heterosexism: A Handbook of Lesbian Rights. It produced a very listenable reggae record by Ranking Ann that decried new policing legislation. Ken Livingstone publicly defended participants in the uprising against police violence in Brixton in 1981. These efforts may have been largely symbolic, but they were indicative of the constituencies that the GLC sought to champion.

Despite its ambitions, the Livingstone-led GLC was limited in what it was able to achieve. Its official anti-racism could come across as gestural and shallow, as critics like Paul Gilroy pointed out, and its efforts at multiculturalism had a habit of excluding precisely the communities it was supposed to be engaging. In some cases, the GLC was hobbled by its own critical stance toward the industrialized city-making of its predecessors. “As a rule,” Hatherley explains, “the New Left held council housing in suspicion,” and the GLC in the 1980s built relatively little public housing. New Left municipalism may have been less bureaucratic than the sewer socialism that preceded it, but it was also less adept at changing the built environment.

The main threat to the GLC, however, was Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in Westminster, who were in the process of torching the British welfare state. Social-democratic municipalism and Margaret Thatcher were archnemeses. She despised the very idea of local government, pushing through limits on local taxation that were specifically targeted at Labour boroughs. Thatcher’s Tories also enforced a wave of privatization aimed at some of the prime achievements of municipal reformers, most famously establishing a national “Right to Buy” council houses (during one of its periods of Tory control, the GLC had already created a weaker version of this). Between rate-capping and privatization, Thatcherism ate away at the roots as well as the branches of municipalism.

GLC pins produced in 1985 under the Labour Party leadership of Ken Livingstone. (Jim Linwood / Flickr)

Thatcher had a habit of attacking the GLC in a manner that today would be identified as trolling. She was particularly incensed by the GLC’s educational and cultural policies. Hatherley writes that “Margaret Thatcher’s bigotry and her passionate hatred of municipal socialism were inextricably fused.” The Tories and their allies in the tabloid press launched an unrelenting sneer campaign to cast the GLC and various inner-London boroughs as strongholds of the “loony left,” and in a manner that unfortunately still generates predictable outrage today, tried to delegitimize social services altogether by associating them with “political correctness run amok.” In 1986, Thatcher succeeded in abolishing the GLC altogether.

The Neoliberal Municipality

For fourteen years, there was no London-wide government. Urban policy was set by local authorities, central government, and a handful of smaller boards. But Labour had always opposed the abolition of the GLC, and after coming to power in 1997, the Tony Blair administration made plans for a new London government.

Established in 2000, the Greater London Authority (GLA) is modeled on American urban executive systems, in that it is led by one citywide elected mayor who is overseen by an elected assembly. But unlike American mayors, the Mayor of London has very little direct power, which largely remains lodged elsewhere, primarily in central government but also in the boroughs. London’s mayoralty has authority over transport, energy, and some municipal services, and has some say in housing. The role’s most significant function is to craft the London Plan, the statutory urban development strategy. But lacking fiscal autonomy or serious political authority, the GLA was never going to resemble the municipal formations of London’s past.

Even though the first GLA mayoral election was won by the same person who was the final leader of the GLC — Ken Livingstone began his victory speech with the line “as I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted fourteen years ago…” — the GLA under Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and Sadiq Khan has been consistently oriented toward one mode of city-making: not socialist municipalism but neoliberal urbanism.

Hatherley has some sympathy for Khan’s mild attempts to steer a more leftward path, acknowledging that “more council housing has been built under Khan’s watch than at any time since the early 1980s.” That being said, it has made “barely a dent because of the scale of the disaster that Livingstone, Johnson and the Labour councils cooked up between 2000 and 2016.” Khan sought to municipalize some private transport lines, and he at least talks about rent control. Ultimately, though, Hatherley notes that Khan’s approach to urban development is “Livingstone and Johnson’s growth model, but tweaked.”

These three mayors came to this model from different ideological directions and have had slightly different emphases. But generally speaking, all three administrations have pursued the same strategy focused on the FIRE sectors (finance, insurance, real estate): scaled-back and at times overtly punitive social services delivered via public-private partnerships; erection of iconic, socially useless architecture; tourism and mega-events, with the original impetus behind the 2012 Olympics coming from Livingstone before Johnson decided to claim it as his own; displacement-inducing gentrification glorified in urbanist terms as “regeneration”; and the mirage of trickle-down housing, where real estate capital has been given both a leg up and a free hand with the hope that it might also supply small numbers of “social” or “affordable” housing, terms which have been redefined to the point of meaninglessness.

In terms of housing, the major impact of the GLA has been to trample on the built legacy of earlier municipalist formations. It has been abetted in its residential vandalism by national government and by a number of local councils. Southwark, under its former leader Peter John, lives in particular infamy in this regard, but there are many other offenders.

Through large-scale sell-offs, “estate regeneration” schemes that greatly reduce the number of council housing units, and an inability and/or failure to produce new council housing at any significant rate, the GLA and the London boroughs kneecapped the public residential sector. Combined with the growth of private renting, the emergence of ultra-luxury, largely uninhabited “housing” units as financial instruments, and various other forms of financialization, London’s post-GLC housing system has undergone a paradigm shift.

The commodification of land and housing is now one of the major processes reshaping urban life in London. This process was initiated by Thatcher, and only took full effect during the Blair years and after. Far from resisting it, the GLA helped it along, to the point where city hall itself is located in a private development owned by the Kuwaiti sovereign wealth fund (though Khan, to his credit, is in the process of relocating it to a GLA-owned building in the Docklands). Much of today’s so-called affordable housing should just be considered a form of tenure-washing, where a handful of slightly less expensive units are used to justify large-scale predatory extraction by real estate and finance.

Why would the three GLA mayors, who came to the role from both Labour and the Tories, and represent, respectively, a remnant of the New Left, the Right, and the center-left, converge on more or less the same model of urban development? In part this reflects a bipartisan neoliberal consensus. But neoliberalism is also baked into the institutional framework of GLA London itself.

With little real power over spending, taxation, and finance, the GLA and local authorities in practice only have two major strategies at their disposal: cuts or growth, both of which they pursue with as much vigor as they can muster. Cuts to the public sector and municipal services cause real social pain, especially for working-class and poor Londoners. Growth-oriented strategies also put pressure on these communities, in the forms of higher rents and the threat of redevelopment and displacement.

The fact is that there are few remaining mechanisms for redistribution. In 1965, a municipal entity like the London Borough of Camden — suddenly blessed with tax receipts from wealthy suburbs it acquired in the local authority reorganization — could plow money into building high-quality public housing and social infrastructure. Today’s hamstrung, de-skilled councils are not able to go very far down that route even if they choose. Any return of social-democratic municipalism will require rebuilding the political and organizational structures that made it possible.

To be sure, some councils are pursuing a municipalist revival. Camden has built new housing, including Bourne Estate designed by Matthew Lloyd, which recalls classic LCC architecture, and Holmes Road Studios for homeless people, designed by Peter Barber. Many of today’s municipalists are trying to integrate decarbonization into their approaches in ways that are clearly in touch with Green New Deal politics. The London Borough of Hackney has established a council-owned power company that is intended to provide energy for the council through photovoltaic cells on housing estate roofs. And many local authorities now pursue “insourcing,” taking contracts back from the private sector.

The Holmes Road studios for homeless people represent an attempt at a municipalist revival. (Camden Community Investment Programme)

The glimmer of neo-municipalism in London is a welcome development, but these are still small countercurrents within the neoliberal tide. And some recent initiatives are essentially municipalist in form but neoliberal in content, such as council-owned “special purpose vehicles,” which according to geographers Joe Beswick and Joe Penny pursue a form of “financialized municipal entrepreneurialism” that makes them akin to public speculators.

Even as boroughs like Camden have turned toward neo-municipalism, they still seek to leverage expensive real estate as if it were a natural resource, something the council called its “North Sea oil” strategy. But Hatherley rightly argues, “It is time to call this what it is — a resource curse.” The only solution is to follow what is also the only sane strategy for petroleum: “leave it in the ground.” These should be the basic principles of local urban development: “Don’t sell your land, and don’t speculate on it either. Don’t build private housing if it is beyond the budgets of most of your residents. Don’t play the property market.” These are simple rules but even purportedly left-leaning councils seem to have trouble following them.

A truly system-challenging municipalism may yet return to London. But it will require enough political momentum to knock the capital off of its current trajectory and aim it instead toward something better.

Urban Prospects

The history of municipalism in London illustrates at once the shortcomings of urban social democracy as well as its promise. Most of London’s experience with municipalism has not involved its socialist variety but a more technocratic brand of urban governance that has caused plenty of harm. Municipal government in the British capital has in recent years spent more energy deconstructing urban social citizenship than building it. And we should not fall into what the urban geographer Mark Purcell calls the “local trap,” which falsely suggests that smaller-scale governance is inherently more democratic than any other scale.

But looking at the interlinked problems of steadily worsening life prospects for non-elites, the unhappy mix of stasis and reaction that characterizes national politics, and the already arrived doom of climate change, it’s clear that London and other big cities need some version of socialist municipalism. The point of learning about the history of municipal socialism today is not to try to relive the politics of the past or establish a cult of decontextualized modernist architecture. The point is to grasp concrete lessons about urban politics that can be applied to our current conjuncture.

For one, the history of municipalism highlights the supreme importance of urban fiscal autonomy. Municipalism depends upon the municipality having the power to tax. This is one reason why reactionaries through the ages have sought to remove that power from cities and to delegitimize their authority; this is the serious repressive function of the “loony left” rhetoric. A true resurgence of municipalism in London requires returning significant fiscal authority and power to London government and to councils (the recent scrapping of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap is only a first step).

This story also shows the importance of crafting a politics that speaks to people’s ability to keep their households and communities going on a daily basis. Municipalism is focused on questions about what kinds of economy, infrastructure, and built environment people need to live a dignified life. This approach is infinitely more useful than the culture-war frame that currently dominates British politics. Hatherley reasons that “On a classical definition, of people who have to sell their labour power to survive and do not own property, London is the most proletarian city in the country” (whereas the “‘red wall’ showed a profile closest to traditionally Tory towns in the shires”). Municipalism is a politics that addresses the actual needs of urban proletarians.

Red Metropolis is also an argument for a new approach to devolution in the UK. Recognizing that “the first victims of London’s system are usually Londoners,” Hatherley’s position is that “London needs to govern the rest of the country less, and govern itself more.” Despite the book’s focus on London, its political stance is not actually London-centric. It’s not asserting the superiority of London. Rather, it’s using London’s experience to argue for an approach to urban development that could also be pursued in other cities. One also gets the impression that Hatherley would be happy to write versions of this book about, say, Liverpool or Newcastle.

Of course the municipalist project is not without risks. Forty years of neoliberal urbanization will not be easy to overcome. And there are unavoidable questions within municipalism between challenging the status quo versus making pragmatic compromises with it. There is also the vexed question of the Labour Party, which has both supported and hindered left municipalisms, and still seems interested in doing both. None of these issues are resolved in Red Metropolis. But they are fundamentally practical rather than historical questions.

More than anything, the history of municipalism in London shows that a socialized city can happen here, because in various ways it already has. We know an alternative metropolis is possible because people have built it, or at least pieces of it. Municipal power has recently been pushed to the right, but it could be moved left again. Urban government has failed to live up to the transformative potential of municipalism, but a better version of it can be developed. There’s no alternative urban future that doesn’t require struggle. But history shows that struggles to change urban life can succeed. In this respect, there is a lot in London to emulate.