Nuclear free zones were an early 80s political phenomenon that swept Labour run local councils, student unions and other bodies. They were always derided by the Tories as a vainglorious gesture by grandstanding politicians. However, they captured a widespread anxiety about the threat of nuclear war that was very pervasive in the late 70s and early 80s. The turnout on CND demos surged massively at the turn of the decade and I remember being on one monster march to Hyde Park in 1981.
Here’s an announcement that Merseyside County Council (later abolished by Thatcher along with the GLC and other authorities that were nearly all Labour run) was going to declare itself a nuclear free zone.
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.