London reacts to Maggie in 1979

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



Ken Livingstone versus Sir Horace Cutler – both leaders of the defunct GLC

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.


The last years of the Greater London Council and the battle with Thatcher

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.

Lesbians versus Gay Skinheads – only in the 80s!

Gay skinheads – what’s not to like? Plenty as it turned out in some people’s eyes. By the end of the 70s, the skin look had been adopted by extreme right thugs normally associated with the National Front, British National Party, Column 88 and the British Movement. They were a menace and a danger to black, Asian and LGBT people.

This was sad because the look actually originated in Jamaican culture and music. And in the late 60s and early 70s the racist tag had not been automatically associated with skinheads. So what to do as the extreme right made the skinhead look their own?

Well, some gay men came up with a fine solution. Take the look back. Subvert it. Engage in a progressive act of cultural appropriation! Draw the sting out of the skinhead appearance by fully integrating it into the LGBT scene. And lo it came to pass!

So successful was the growing gay skin scene that a party was organised by the Gay Skinhead Movement at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre on Cowcross Street near Farringdon tube station. Don’t bother looking for it now – it’s a soulless wine bar for the local white collar droids.

The centre had been set up and funded by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone in 1985 as part  of its much mocked and reviled (in the tabloid press) pro-LGBT policy. From the outset though, the centre witnessed the sort of infighting that only the 80s could produce.

Lesbian mothers took issue with strident S&M lesbians. All of them weren’t sure if they wanted bisexual men in the building in case they hit on them. And, needless to say, gay skinheads were not welcome at all by those lesbians who thought the aforementioned appropriation was in poor taste.

So…when the gay skinhead Moonstomp Disco kicked off – all hell let loose. What is so silly about what happened next is that the event was a roaring success. And god knows, the centre needed the cash. It limped from one financial crisis to the next and so some gay skin wonga should have been welcomed with sequin-gloved hands.

But no. There were howls of protest that the centre was being “invaded” by Nazis. The report from Out magazine is below – read and weep. Unsurprisingly, the centre did not survive long into the 90s. Well done then to the identity politics crowd!

I once went to a curious function called Sadie Masie at the centre – which as you can guess was pretty much full on S&M. Not being a sado-masochist myself, I found the evening curious but made my excuses at some point and slipped in to the night.

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Ken Livingstone and detention camps for political dissenters

Back in 1983, Thatcher went to the country for a fresh electoral mandate after a rocky first term as prime-minister. From 1979 to 1981, unemployment had skyrocketed and large parts of the manufacturing sector had collapsed. The summer of ’81 saw riots and interest rates were fearsomely high. But electoral salvation came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands giving Thatcher a huge boost in the polls.

So what was going to happen if the Tories got back in? The leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone was interviewed by the New Musical Express a few weeks before the general election and he believed political activists could be rounded up and detained. This was by no means an isolated opinion. Many on the left took the view that democracy was being eroded, power was being centralised, the unions emasculated, local councils abolished and the police and courts being used in a more politically explicit manner.

Ken said he thought camps could be established to hold anti-government activists. The memory of internment in Northern Ireland during the 1970s ‘Troubles’ and use of jury free Diplock courts undoubtedly contributed to this fear among many socialists. There had also been the threat of tougher anti-crime measures after the 1981 riots, which Ken references in the article. However, Thatcher was not about to establish a fascist dictatorship.

Ken sees detention camps ahead
Ken sees detention camps ahead
Ken Livingstone interviewed
Ken Livingstone interviewed

County Hall – when Ken Livingstone headed up the GLC

County Hall on the South Bank in London is now a hotel, aquarium, some kind of horror show, a Japanese restaurant and a McDonalds Рoh, and a ticket office for the London Eye.  It was once the city hall for London Рwhere the Greater London Council (GLC) was based.

Back in the early 1980s, the GLC was led by a much younger Ken Livingstone. He used to plaster the current unemployment figure across the top of the building. As it pretty much faced on to the Houses of Parliament, on the river bank opposite, Margaret Thatcher couldn’t exactly miss it.

But Thatcher got her revenge – by abolishing the GLC.

County Hall - as seat of the GLC
County Hall – when it was the seat of the GLC

Ken Livingstone – always at the centre of controversy

You’d have to be a certain age now to remember Ken Livingstone’s first political incarnation as leader of the GLC – the Greater London Council – in the early 1980s.

I was at college in Liverpool in the early 80s coming back to London for the holiday breaks. The Left in Liverpool and most of the north had what some might term a “workerist” perspective – it was all about class unity and trade unions. Ken and much of the London Left were more into a kind of identity politics or rainbow coalition approach. It was less about “the class” and more about building alliances of “oppressed” “minorities”.

He took up some causes that now are completely mainstreamed – women and LGBT rights in particular. It’s hard to believe but standing up in public and saying gay people should be treated equally in the early 80s was a one way ticket to being demonised in the tabloids. Attitudes on race were, needless to say, shocking by today’s standards.

Where Ken went a bit off piste from the point of view of this ex-workerist scribe was his associating with Irish Republicans and other groups whose political positions weren’t even necessarily on the left. And as a Trotskyist, I rolled my eyes as he invited Soviet representatives to County Hall (now a Marriott hotel near the London Eye but then the GLC HQ).

Where we all supported Ken was his decision to drape a huge banner across the front of County Hall with the current number of unemployed emblazoned across it. It was normally somewhere between three and four million. Official figures and our figures were always at a massive variance.

Thatcher eventually got her revenge by closing down London’s elected body, the GLC. There wouldn’t be another democratic body running London until the Blair government set up the GLA. And then guess who got elected mayor taking up where he had left off……Ken Livingstone!

Here’s the Daily Mail, then, fulminating against Ken for inviting a delegation from the Soviet Union.