by Eliot Henderson
While researching the Southwark and Lambeth Labour parties of the 1970s and 1980s, I was struck by the importance of that generation of activists’ contribution to British political history. Dismissed as the ‘loony left’ by the media at the time, today the political priorities of those activists are firmly entrenched as mainstream vote winners: equal rights and representation for women, ethnic minorities, young people and the LGBT community. My findings illuminate how much public attitudes have changed in the last thirty years thanks to the interventions of those activists in the 1970s and 1980s, and help to challenge the assumption that the Labour party needs to warmly embrace neo-liberalism and pander to the popular press to win elections.
The new urban left that emerged in Lambeth and Southwark in the 1970s were political graduates of the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s: CND members, anti-apartheid activists, feminists, Vietnam war protesters and racial equality campaigners. Events in Southwark and Lambeth in the 1980s highlight the beginning of a process that could hold the key to a Labour majority in 2015: the combination of Labour’s traditional politics of class with one of race, gender and sexuality – an old and a new politics of identity – to construct a new, inclusive political base for the party.
In Lambeth, this new urban left coordinated a vibrant local and national opposition to a Conservative cuts agenda under the leadership of the controversial but charismatic council leader, Ted Knight. Policies targeting inequality, poverty, racism and sexism through investment and positive discrimination united the large immigrant communities in the centre of the borough with the predominantly white working-class north, along with some sections of more affluent Norwood and Dulwich to the south. With no support from the Labour party leadership and the intense scrutiny of an antagonistic press to deal with, the rate-capping struggle of the 1980s was a rough and ready affair for the Lambeth left. One council meeting in July 1985 even had to be adjourned for 20 minutes after Conservative councillor “Dicky” Bird put Labour councillor Terry Rich in a headlock. Yet despite the overwhelmingly negative publicity, Lambeth residents nonetheless voted to increase the number of Labour councillors from 32 to 40 in the local elections of 1986, proving that a manifesto based on concepts like social justice, investment in deprived areas and positive action to end discrimination and redress inequality could unite voters in a diverse constituency.