London and the south east had a swing to the Tories in 1979 that was 50% higher than the rest of the country. The GLC was already in Tory hands under the leadership of Horace Cutler. He was looking forward to a close working relationship with Thatcher around issues that would eventually move in his direction: the development of Canary Wharf, sale of council houses, the Jubilee line and a third airport. Cutler also thought his party would support an Olympics bid for 1988.
The GLC had traditionally been heavily involved in the provision of social housing but Cutler handed over stock to local boroughs and pushed for council house sales ahead of Thatcher coming to power and in the teeth of opposition from Labour, the left and housing groups.
Cutler believed London had given the Tories a huge endorsement and looked forward to a “happy time”. Unfortunately for him, Londoners turned on Cutler’s Conservatives in 1981 after two years of recession and the GLC ended up with Labour in control and Ken Livingstone.
Livingstone was able to link up with other Labour held metropolitan authorities like Merseyside and South Yorkshire. These sprawling urban councils had swung to Labour in 1979, defying the Thatcherite wave. The prime minister got her revenge in 1986 when she abolished all these authorities including the GLC.
Here is a punk rant against Cutler’s GLC from The Members
There could not have been a greater contrast on a personal and political level between the outgoing Conservative leader of the GLC Sir Horace Cutler and incoming Labour leader Ken Livingstone. I’d almost liken Cutler to a royalist and Livingstone to a roundhead.
Cutler had the demeanour of a cheerful Victorian cad and villain. Livingstone was the earnest supporter of oppressed minorities. So when the two faced off on TV, there would be no overlap of views or areas of compromise.
Campaigning to save the GLC
The whole saga around the Greater London Council in the early 80s doesn’t exactly cover Margaret Thatcher in glory. It’s arguably the worst example of her political centralising tendencies.
In 1977, the GLC had switched from Labour to Conservative control – under the flamboyant Sir Horace Cutler. Under him, many of the ideas that would become national Conservative policy after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election were tried out – in particular, the sale of council houses. Cutler also transformed Covent Garden from a fruit and veg market to a chic shopping experience that incidentally banned shops selling denim!
By 1981, Londoners were ready to bring Labour back and the party won under Andrew McIntosh. In a very daring and controversial move, Ken Livingstone representing the left of the London Labour Party then deposed McIntosh and was installed as the new leader of the GLC.
This began several years of Livingstone taunting Thatcher over the rising level of unemployment and a very strident defence of minority rights. There was also a campaign around keeping London Underground fares down.
Thatcher detested the GLC and in 1986, she abolished it along with six other metropolitan county councils – Merseyside council for example. Even by the standards of the time, this was a shockingly partisan move – an attack on authorities that were all Labour controlled. Needless to say the official excuse was that bureaucracy was being trimmed. But I don’t think anybody bought that line.