INDEX May 14, 1987
Anne Sofer assesses the hard-left alienation of London voters

Labour's top danger zone

Nobody now doubts that the "London Left'' is a major liability to the Labour Party, a greater danger than the Liverpool Militants ever were.

The Militant Tendency could apparently be isolated and then symbolically exorcised. (I choose the words "apparently" and "symbolically" with care; the vast majority of its members are of course still in the Labour Party). But the London Left is more amorphous and hard to deal with. Its members owe allegiance to a multiplicity of sectarian groups; they have not offended so obviously against the Labour Party constitution; they are firmly entrenched; and the idea of isolating the entire London Labour Party only has to be put into words to be seen as an absurdity.

The left is now in charge of virtually every London elected authority under Labour control. Lambeth was the first to fall victim to a coup from the left under Ted Knight in 1980. The GLC and the Inner London Education Authority followed in 1981. Hackney, Islington, Camden, Southwark, Lewisham, Greenwich and Haringey were captured in 1982. After the 1986 elections Labour victories took Brent, Waltham Forest, Ealing and Hammersmith the same way. Only a matter of weeks ago there 'was a left-wing coup in Hounslow. ( Newham is teetering on the brink of a similar takeover; when that has gone, the borough of Barking and Dagenham, distant heir of the old working-class East End, will be the last outpost of the old Labour tradition.

'Among London Labour MPs and candidates the trend is all the same way. Those who know the Greenwich Labour Party are not surprised that it has again selected Deirdre Wood, despite her humiliating defeat by Rosie Barnes of the Alliance in the February by election. And although that earlier hard-left election loser Peter Tatchell is no longer on the scene, it is significant that his place as Labour candidate for Southwark and Bermondsey has now been taken by a supporter of Militant.

Many hard-left candidates are pledged to be "mandated" by their local parties on all House of Commons votes: they will not be bound by decisions of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Going through old papers and articles while preparing a book on the takeover by the London Left, I was struck by the completeness of the transformation. I found a copy of the minutes of a meeting, held in December 1980, between the leaders and finance chairmen of all the Labour London boroughs and Ilea: here, in one room, were most of the senior politicians of

Labour's London power base. Today it reads like a list of the heroes of the Russian revolution a . few years into the Stalin era:

within 18 months of that meeting, every person listed had either been deposed, pushed on to the back benches or deselected. I doubt that any political party anywhere in this country has experienced such a thorough obliteration of the past.

It has brought a changed political culture to London local government which some of the press comment about the "loony left" has, to my mind, got wrong. Despite the sense of zany liberation sometimes conveyed in the early days by the GLC, this new culture has developed its own thoroughly rigid orthodoxy.

One feature of this orthodoxy is that town hall jobs have now taken precedence over town hall services. Administrative jobs in particular have become more sacred than any other sacred cow. Under no circumstances may any be sacrificed: they come before efficiency. consumer Satisfaction fiscal prudence or even the council’s solvency.

It is not only the numbers of workers that must be maintained or increased but the bureaucratic layers as well. A former GLC official tells a revealing story. When he joined the GLC there were five positions between himself and his departmental director. Over the years he was promoted six times-- and when he left there were still five positions between himself and his departmental director.

To make matters worse, the bureaucracies themselves are subjected to a new and distinctly uncomfortable political pressure. Ideologically correct language, particularly in matters of race and sex. assumes an enormous importance on which promotion and political favour may depend. Officers arc increasingly expected to be "politically committed"

If they arc not they may find themselves under scrutiny from those who are. When this sort of scrutiny is institutionalised as a "monitoring" function, it provokes considerable hostility-- as the Brent "race spies" row clearly illustrates. But it is far more undermining when the political friends of councillors are dotted throughout the bureaucracy and nobody is quite sure who does or does not have direct informal access to the Labour group. Much of the demoralisation in London local government is caused by this uncertainty.

It is this new climate that makes the London Left a phenomenon to be feared. It is a climate in which services and working relationships deteriorate. The quality of work carried out by council employees becomes increasingly a matter of negotiation-- often rancorous and almost always unsatisfactory negotiation-- rather than of professional expectation.

Strikes and disruption escalate in boroughs that have fallen to the hard left. This may seem an irony in that these politicians usually pride themselves on their progressive employment policies: better working conditions, creches, time off with pay for union activities and so on. Yet either because leftwing employers are regarded as a soft touch, or because the Trotskyists have gained the upper hand in public sector unions in precisely those areas where the left also has the ascendancy in local government, industrial disputes become endemic. Camden council, for example, is currently engaged in 27 separate industrial disputes with its staff.

But to lay all the blame for the declining quality of public life in London on the Labour Party would be absurd. The Conservatives, we are told, are now turning their attention to inner city policy. And about time, one might be permitted to mutter cynically. Left-wing extremism has been nurtured by Conservative neglect of the inner cities over the past eight years-- the slashing cuts in the housing programme, the closures of hospitals, the growing armies of derelicts and drug addicts sleeping in the streets. It is almost tempting to see the Conservative strategy as a form of psychological warfare-- to reduce the victim to a state of sullen, demoralized despair, and then offer an illusion of hope.

Whether or not the policy has been as calculated as this, I have no doubt of the combination that has all but destroyed London. Monetarism tilled the soil, and Marxism scattered the seed.

The author is Alliance parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Highgate. Her book. The London Left Takeover, is published by J. Caslake, 4 Cowley St, SW1. (£3.95 plus 50p postage).

The Times May 14, 1987.
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