On Sunday 10 June 1984, Greater London Council (GLC) leader Ken Livingstone held a free open-air concert to protest against unemployment and government spending cuts.
Thousands of Londoners turned out to watch acts like The Smiths and Billy Bragg. Most would have been attracted principally by the music and the summer weather. To leading nazi-skin activist Nicky Crane, however, anyone attending a left-wing-hosted event like this was a legitimate target. As The Redskins, a socialist skinhead band, played, Crane led an attack on the crowd. Around 100 fascists began setting about the audience closest to the main stage. The Redskins, who were known for their support of the Socialist Workers Party, were for them an ideal target (Shame they didn’t break Billy Bragg’s guitar and mike though, eh; or maybe they thought listening to his set was torture equivalent to a gestapo interrogation… Only kidding? No I’m not, I’ve been kettled with the ****er twice and he started singing both times. Neither time would the cops relent and let us out!).
Several skinheads stormed the stage, injuring one of the guitarists who was taken to hospital accompanied by the compere, Hank Wangford. The NF supporters were chased off by the festival security (Yorkshire miners who were on strike and had been employed as a way of providing support for the miners’ strike fund. Their employment was unusual because the GLC and its unions usually insisted that jobs be done within the GLC), allied with members of the anti-fascist group Red Action.
Crane was not cowed, however, and after regrouping his forces, he charged a second stage at the other end of the park where the Hank Wangford Band were playing. This time, however, the anti-fascists were better prepared. Festival goers grabbed empty cider bottles to use as improvised weapons. As the anti-fascists fought back, Crane broke away from the main battle, attacking the rest of the crowd, on his own, stripped to the waist. As Crane tried to make it over a barrier on to the stage, he was knocked over by a Red Action member. He escaped the furious crowd by using a female left-wing activist as a human shield, according to witnesses. As the violence subsided, anti-fascists confronted another skinhead in the crowd. His Harrington jacket was unzipped to reveal a slogan on his T-shirt. It read “Nicky Crane”, in tribute to the young man’s hero. Given the carnage Crane had just instigated, the left-wingers had little sympathy for his admirer. The skinhead was set upon and beaten.
For those too young to have known the GLC, it was an elected body similar to today’s London Assembly, with a set of powers over all of London – mainly strategic – responsible for transport, the fire service, a fair proportion of London’s social housing, waste disposal and so on… as well as taking some part in road maintenance, planning, funding voluntary sector etc. It had replaced the old London County Council.
In 1981 a leftwing Labour Party administration took power, led by Ken Livingstone. Yes, that one, just as gobby and self-promotional. The administration began to spend big on a leftist social democratic program, in vocal opposition to the national Conservative Thatcher government’s diet of austerity, privatisation, savaging of industry and restructuring. The GLC set about cutting bus fares, as well as supporting a plethora of projects, many of which had evolved from the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s – the feminist movement, black and other ethnic minority groups, gay and lesbian projects… Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from the GLC (and local boroughs). This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly… There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.
It was the latter effect that rapidly made the GLC a target of tabloid media frothing –“loony left subsidies for one-legged black lesbian feminists on the rates” (together with a collection of the London boroughs also controlled by the labour left, Lambeth, Hackney, Islington etc.)
Much of the Livingstone GLC administration’s politics was radical posturing, however; when challenged on the legality of some of their policies they backed down; as with the cheap bus fares, and their opposition – abandoned at the last minute – to government ‘rate-capping’, basically vicious cuts to the amount they were allowed to charge as rates (like modern council tax) to raise money to pay for stuff. Partly they backed down because you can’t really have socialism in one city, partly because there were just serious limits to how deep their commitment to real change was. For all the financial support for grassroots projects, the hierarchical nature of the Council remained, with a strong element of the old Labour attitude of doing things for people.
During the 1980s many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives, in the GLC and elsewhere; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. ON the other hand, the money ‘Red’ Ken’s tenure saw handed out was both a boon to lots of ground-level schemes that had a real benefit to people’s lives, and a poisoned chalice.; it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could, and did, lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. It was never gonna last for ever. When the grants were withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects were bought off, their challenge to the local or wider state neutralised in this way. The half-arsed social democratic approach was always two-faced, tinkering round the edges, while cheerfully administering exploitation and sending in the cops to squash dissent from below.
In the end, of course, the Thatcher government abolished the GLC, and other ‘metropolitan’ councils (like the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, etc). The huge splurges on festival may have been fun, but in the end didn’t rally a people’s rebellion against the tories. Although the music may have been funky (mostly – Billy Bragg, Not In My Name!)
In the ‘80s, most anarchists, communists, etc, rightly critiqued the GLC and similar bodies as being mere window dressing, holding back more fundamental social change that we desperately need. Nothing has changed in that reality. However, in the last 30 years, our daily experience has got much worse… Capitalism has been reshaped, in the image of the wetdreams of the wealthy, and our collective project to oppose that, drive things in a different direction, while always alive, is fragmented. Nostalgia for the times the GLC operated in would be easy to fall into, since we’re in a much worse state. (is there an extent to which this feeling in part funded the pathetic Livingstone mayoralty of more recent times: an exposure if one was needed of the bankruptcy of the politics of the man. Now compounded by seeming verbal dementia, if his burblings on the subject of Hitler and Zionism are anything to go by).
To build a movement that can challenge the daily misery and poverty and bring about a way of life genuinely in the interests of us all, we need to avoid the cul-de-sacs of municipal ‘socialism’.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online