In the past few difficult years for the Left in Britain, the greatest cause for hope has been the initiatives of the new ‘city socialism’ of the metropolitan county councils such as the glc. They have succeeded in demonstrating the positive value of public provision—in transport and leisure, for example—at a time when the idea of State spending has been under damaging attack. They have been able to reach out to new social constituencies, while also vigorously defending the interests of working people as both producers and consumers. They have been more adept even than this media-conscious government in the use of modern communications methods, and will end their present constitutional life in March with a substantial opionion-poll majority against their abolition.
Not least, the glc and some of the other metropolitan councils have given a new attention to the economy as the fundamental determinant of living conditions in the cities. They have rejected the conventional idea that local government should concern itself only with the social infrastructure, collective consumption and welfare, leaving production to the private sector and the central State. They realized that the problems of de-industrialization and unemployment were fundamental for their citizens, and that these issues had to be addressed if they were to do much for their well-being.
The issues of economic renewal have been central to most of the glc’s initiatives. Its support for public transport and low fares, its interventions in the cultural field, all involve a commitment to jobs. The glc has effectively dramatized the problem of economic decline (County Hall has displayed a large sign to Parliament across the Thames stating the number of Londoners unemployed). It has also engaged in direct interventions in job-creation and industrial reconstruction. To do this it invoked a neglected provision in local government law (very restrictive in Britain) which allows a 2p rate to be levied for unspecified purposes. It has also made use of the glc’s own pension funds as loan capital or security. It set up the Greater London Enterprise Board
Such novel attention by local government to the sphere of production rather than distribution has various origins. The Home Office-funded Community Development Projects in the 1970s had rewritten their official briefs. Instead of concentrating on neighbourhood self-help and welfare provision as intended, they produced intransigent reports denouncing the migration of capital from inner-city areas as the key source of poverty. The revival of Marxist economic theory has also contributed to this reorientation towards the sphere of production, understood not simply as the site of class mobilization, but as economic forces whose development was the main engine of capitalism—and is perhaps the precondition for socialism too. A third source of these initiatives was the resistance of shop stewards, led by the Lucas Aero-space Combine, to the restructuring and consequent unemployment imposed by capital from the mid-seventies onwards. The notion of alternative plans and production for social need generated by this movement is a key component in the economic thinking of the new left city councils.
The glc has recently produced a 600-page document, The London Industrial Strategy (or lis), which reports their thinking, plans, and practice in the sphere of production. Another consultative document, The London Financial Strategy (or lfs), has just been published, and The London Labour Plan and The London Economic Strategy will follow in a final flourish before the glc disappears. The lis explains the broad approach of this new economic strategy, and provides over twenty examples of its application to various sectors of the economy. The latter are informative and accessible—a model of the kind of documentation that should be available to workers and citizens if economic democracy is to have any substance. Were Labour councils in every city able to generate public papers of this quality and by these methods, a very different debate about economic reconstruction would be possible. The reports provide useful data on employment, industrial structures and markets, and describe the disaster which has befallen industry and
The proposals have been developed by a combination of documentary research and discussions with shop stewards and user-groups. Many of the sectoral reports reflect their concerns—for example, over job creation; the survival of neighbourhood shops, transport, and services; ecological values in the energy sector; and even a preference for ethnic and whole-foods in the Food Industry report. In areas where the glc has been most involved—childcare, transport, energy, health—proposals are particularly substantial. The report on the cultural industries breaks new ground in its advocacy of a genuine pluralism in the press and other media. The view-point of capital is barely reflected in the document—even as an alternative set of priorities to contend with. This in turn reflects not only the socialist commitments of the glc, but also its inability to engage large-scale capital in dialogue because of limited resources and powers. In this respect the methodology and logic of the lis reports is very different from the tripartite corporatist approach of the nedo.
The glc defines its economic approach as one distinct both from Keynesianism and monetarism.footnote1 More precisely, we might say that whereas monetarism was a repudiation of Keynesianism from the right, the glc’s strategy rejects it from the left. The Right has sought to accelerate the reconstruction of capital through market forces. The neo-classical ‘supply-side’ approach has attacked trade-union impediments to market exchange. It has attempted to free capital for private investment by reducing public expenditure and its alleged ‘crowding out’ effects, and has sought to impose market disciplines (and private ownership) on public sector activities. The British version of this approach has been crudely class-oriented and authoritarian rather than liberal. It seems to have conceived its task more to win ground for the property-owning classes (through tax-concessions, weakening unions, and privatization) than to create universal conditions for competition. In any event, these prescriptions are not proving successful in the regeneration of the British economy (although they are making some people much richer).