Sunday, 25 September 2016

Radical and Mutual Clapham - Part 3

Clapham saw a major political change in 1885 with the creation of the Metropolitan Borough of Battersea and Clapham. This was divided into two  Parliamentary constituencies: Battersea and the much larger Clapham area which included Nine Elms, and South Battersea from Lavender Hill down into north Balham.  The Clapham Liberal and Radical Association was  set up. It managed to get James Moulton elected with 52.1% of the vote on a high turnout of 80.7% of the 9,954 electors. He lost the following year.

Clapham Liberals and Radicals were now linked with their Battersea counterparts fighting the elections for the Battersea Vestry, so the story becomes closely linked with the liberal, radical and socialist politics of Battersea, in which John Burns welded together a  Progressive Alliance, creating organisations like the Battersea Labour League and the Battersea Trades & Labour Council. Clapham also had its equivalents and these were part of the Alliance and the Battersea Trades & Labour Council.  The Progressive Alliance, which achieved Burns’s election to the London County Council at the end of 1889 and as MP in 1892, went on to control the Vestry until 1900 when Clapham and Battersea were separated with Clapham going into the new Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth. The Conservatives of the period won the Clapham Parliamentary seat between 1886 and 1900 and then the new smaller constituency from 1900.

Other radical developments included the Clapham Reform Club, at which the Irish  poet Yeats set up the Irish Literary Society in 1892. He also lectured on ‘Nationality and Literature’ at the Clapham branch of the Irish National league. The socialist Clarion movement had supporters. Frederick Arthur Maule of 6893 Wandsworth Rd was a member of its Field Club in 1895. W. H. Crisp , the Secretary of the Clapham Clarion cyclists lived at 43 Wirtemberg St. By 1907 they were members of the South London Club. The planned Clapham Clarion Cinderella Club quickly became the Clapham Socialist Sunday School at Marris Hall in 1907. Morris Hall was used by Clapham Independent Labour Party. In 1907 the South London Clarion cyclists supported fundraising for the London Clarion Van which was to tour promoting socialist ideas. The London Van Committee Secretary Frederick Hagger lived in Clapham. That year at a Fellowship Gathering the cyclists and their friends raised money for the Variety  Artistes Federation’s Music Hall Strike Fund.

1907 also saw a fund raising benefit for Thomas Atkinson at Battersea Town Hall. Born in the North East he had been an apprentice engineer on The Rocket. He was a trade union activist from the 1830s. By 1907 he was a widower and bedridden living on a union pensions with his daughter Elizabeth at 52 Courland Grove.

By now the suffragette movement was active in the area. Mrs F Underwood of 16 Newland Terrace, Queens Rd, the Secretary of the Clapham branch of the Women’s Freedom League from 1908 became National Propaganda Secretary in 1911 and then national General Secretary, and also edited its newspaper The Voice.

Following the Russian Revolution at the end of the First World War various socialist groups across Britain merged together to form the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. The Clapham British Socialist Party (formerly SDF) branch was represented and a member A. A. Watts became the first Treasurer of the new Party. He was also a Labour London County Councillor for Battersea.

Also at the Convention was another Clapham BSP member living the compositor Alfred M. Wall (1890–1957). In 1919 he was elected to Wandsworth Borough Council for Clapham North. He was Labour candidate for Streatham in the 1924 General Election. In 1926  he was elected as Secretary of London Trades Council. The next year he became a joint secretary of the ‘Hands Off China’ campaign. He helped to set up what became Equity. Later he was a Vice-President of the Spanish medical Aid Committee. In In 1938, Wall was elected as General Secretary of the London Society of Compositors. He retired in 1945.

During the General Strike of 1926 the Nine Elms Joint Workers Committee was based at the Clapham Trades Union & Social Club at 374 Wandsworth Rd, while the Lambeth Strike Committee was based at the New Morris Hall at 79 Bedford Rd.

In the May 1929 General Election Labour fielded the ILP member J. Allen Skinner. A conscientious objector in the First World War he went on to edit Peace News (1951-5) and be on early CND committees. At the October 1931 General Election Helen Browning was the candidate standing against the National Government led by former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. She later worked at the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, and Hon. Secretary of the China Defence League raising money for China in its war against Japan. Being based with her husband in Hong King, she  was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese.  Back in London in 1951 she became a Labour London County Councillor for Fulham East (1952-65) and chaired the Fabian Society’s Colonial bureau.

Clapham elected John Rose Battley as its first Labour MP in 1945 (to 1950).
The Labour MP for Clapham from 1964 to 1970 was  Margaret McKay (1911-96), a Lancashire textile worker who became Chief Woman Officer at the TUC 1951-62. She became a campaigner for the Palestinian refugees, setting up a refugee camp in Trafalgar Square, and chaired the Jordan Refugee Week Committee. She wrote a moving autobiography Generation in Revolt (1953).

I hope that this blog posting may stimulated further research by others. There are three issues that need to be kept sight of:
  • ·     What is Clapham, given its historic parish, parliamentary and local council boundaries? These postings have tried to concentrate on the parish boundaries.

  • ·     In order to make sense of population statistics did the Census area called ‘Clapham’ go through boundary changes.

  • ·     Close attention needs to be paid to the problem that some Clapham addresses are given as Battersea in early 19thC newspapers.   

Radical and Mutual Clapham - Part 2

The period of the 1830s to the 1860s sees the creation of more friendly societies: the Clapham Friendly (1843), the True Brothers of Clapham Friendly Society (1845), the Clapham & Wandsworth Burial Society and the Clapham and Stockwell Coal Club (1848), the Local Pride of Surry, the Independent Order of Old Friends and the Clapham Mutual Benefit (1855), and the Hand of Friendship Mutual benefit (1856).

There were also ‘branches’ of the largest national mutual benefit societies of the Oddfellows and Foresters, which their democratic structures between local  and national levels.   The Foresters had for example the Britannia (1846), the William Wale (1863) and The Reliance (1866) and the Manchester Oddfellows included The Europa (1848) and the Pride of Clapham (1860).

There were also the mutual loan societies: Clapham Workingmen's (1859), Provident LS, Bromells Buildings (1860), Workingmen’s LS Bedford Arms, Independent Labour LS, Union Arms, Friend in Need LS, Tim Bobbin, Orchard St, and Clapham Union LS,  Park Crescent (1861), Clapham FLLS, Bromells Rd and FLLS Olive Branch FLLLS, High St (1863), and Windmill Tavern FLLS, Park Rd and Duke of Cornwall WLS, Lyham Rd (1864).

The 1850s and 1860s also sees evidence of the establishment of retail co-operatives. The London and South Western Railway Co-operative Society was registered 1855 its members working for the railway company. Active members included James Trussler, a bolt maker, of 2 Clifton St (now Courland St), William Boyd, a carpenter and the Secretary in the 1860s, 28 Trigon Rd, off Clapham Rd. It appears to have survived until 1867.

In 1860 there was the Clapham Co-operative based at the Freemasons Arms in Courland Grove, with several of its Trustees living off Larkhall Lane, William Allen, a  hairdresser and Charles Hyde, a coachman.  The following  year it merged into the National Industrial and Provident Society.

Small local trade union organisations of builders met at places like The Sun, and that Clapham building workers took part in the 1859-60 strike for a one hour reduction in pay from ten to nine hours. This led to the formation of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Woodworkers led by Robert Applegarth. The local building unions Clapham link has continued to the present day, as UCATT’s HQ is at 1777 Abbeyville Rd, it having been created by the merger of previous unions in 1971 many of whom had their HQs in Clapham, like the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers at 11 Macauley Rd. Its Chairman between 1912 and 1916 W.W. Barnes lived in Clapham.

To protect their funds trade union leaders like Applegarth kept politics out, but were very active in a  range of political organisations, including the International Workingmen’s Association, along with Karl Marx. It set up the Reform League and one of its Clapham supporters T. Franklin was a member of the organising committee for the League’s Fete and Banquet at Crystal palace in September 1867.

J. L. Turner, the chairman of both The Hand-in-Hand and the Surprise FLLSs along and off  Wandsworth Rd set up at the end of the 1860s, gave an indication that members were in sympathy with the wider movements for social and political reform. At its first anniversary supper there was a toast to  The Beehive which had been set up by George Potter, a leader of the building workers in 1859/60, and Labour and Unity which reported on the activities of mutual societies. In September 1869  he  expressed the hope "ere long he should have the pleasure of seeing their interests properly represented in the British House of Commons by such men as Odger, Guile, Allen, Applegarth, &c." It is possible that Clapham activists were members of the Reform League branches based around Battersea Park.

The editor of the IWMA’s newspaper in the early 1870s,  The International Herald was the republican socialist William Harrison Riley who lived at 7 Bedford Rd. He also edited The Republican Herald, and advocated setting up a co-operative village.

It is likely that many of the railway workers at Clapham Junction and Nine Elms lived in Clapham, along and off Wandsworth Rd, and took a part in the formation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1871. In spring 1874 bricklayers and labourers at Clapham Baths went on strike for an extra 1d per hour. They were locked out and non-unionised labour  was employed to finish the project.

There was a branch of the National Secular Society from 1879. In neighbouring Battersea it was John Burns’s lecture on Poverty to the Battersea NSS which led to the formation of the Marxist Battersea Social Democratic Federation branch. The Federation had been formed in 1880 with Social being added in 1884. It grew out of the activists in the radical clubs across London. Two local radicals mentioned in The Radical newspaper in 1882 were H. F. Woods of 36 Richmond Terrace and Mrs Sainsbury of Rectory Grove. There was also Richard Smith, a member of the Provisional Council for the Land Nationalisation League which had split off from the Land Nationalisation Society in 1882.

Radical and Mutual Clapham - Part 1

The Clapham area of Lambeth is well known for two things: the base of the anti-slavery Clapham Sect and ‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’. Over the years of researching aspects of the histories of the areas covered by today’s Boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth I have accumulated lots of notes about Clapham, which I put together for a talk ‘Radical Clapham’ on 20 September at Clapham Library as part of the  Lambeth Heritage Festival.

I discussed the Clapham Sect – radical in relation to slavery – with William Wilberforce backing the repressive legislation on freedom of speech and organisation the Government led by William Pitt trying to keep the lid on the support for radical and Jacobin ideas associated with Thomas Paine and the French Revolution.

While I have found no information of radical/Jacobin activity in Clapham, a number of residents along with those of Battersea, published a joint declaration proclaiming that every effort would be made to seek out and prosecute anyone associated with sedition. They sent a copy to John Reeves who had organised the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Levellers and Republicans.

An important piece of that legislation was the Friendly Societies Act of 1793 which required relevant organisations to register with the local magistrates giving them legal status and legitimacy. The first Clapham friendly society I have found, is the Friendly Benefit Society at the Plough Inn  registered in 1804. Later registrations include the Union Society at the Sun (1824), the Clapham Benefit Society (1825), and the Friendly Samaritan Society (1831).

While most friendly societies cannot be defined as radical politically, they were radical socially because so many of them were mutual self-help organisations run by their members, who therefore developed experience in  democratic processes, while not having a vote in elections until much later in the 19thC.

The first real evidence of radical activity comes in March 1831 when Richard Carlile’s The Prompter newspaper published a list of over 80 people in Battersea and Clapham who subscribed to the fund to support him and his wife while he was in prison for seditious libel for supporting agricultural workers campaigning against wage cuts. In September he published the names of 57 subscribers to the fund for Rev. Robert Taylor, the freethinker imprisoned for blasphemy. Some of those subscribing called themselves ‘an enemy of priestcraft’, ‘a real reformer’, ‘a republican’, ‘an advocate of free discussion’. It published a letter reporting that three building workers had been sacked by their employer for supporting Taylor.

Between 1832 and 1836 supporters of the National Union of the Working Classes in Battersea and Clapham were regularly meeting. The Poorman’s Guardian newspaper records that a Reeve(s) sold radical newspapers at the Cock Inn in Clapham - he may have been the W. Reeve(s) who had subscribed to both Carlile and Taylor. H. Levi and 5 Republicans in Clapham donated 6/- to the fund for victims of the Six Acts, a further series of repressive laws following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Cato St Conspiracy of 1820.  A man named Simpson collected 6/8d at the Duke of York on Larkhall Lane. There is further mention of fundraising in Clapham in April 1833.

At a meeting that month Reeve was one of the speakers at the Duke of York objecting to an MP’s attempt to ban secular work on Sundays. In 1834 money was collected for the Derby silk workers who first went on strike and then were locked out. A number of collectors were appointed by the NUWC ‘branch’ at a public meeting at Mr. Bowes’ workshop, which may have been near the Plough at Clapham. One of the collectors was Reeve. The Clapham Independent Lodge of Operative Cordwainers also contributed money. Later on money was collected for the Tolpuddle Martyrs including at The Cock.  In 1836, the year Martyrs were pardoned, money was collected at the Dorset Arms in Clapham Rd and passed to the Surrey District Committee of the Dorchester Committee that had been established to fundraise.

1836 saw the change of the NUWC to the London Workingmen’s Association. In 1838 it launched the People’s Charter for Parliamentary reform and suffrage. A local Wandsworth and Clapham Association was set up. It mainly met in pubs in Wandsworth Town. In those days people were prepared to walk long distances, so this would not necessarily have deterred supporters living in Clapham.

Its meeting discussed such subjects as the principles of the Charter, the nature of and relationship between capital and labour, abuses of public charities like hospitals, and issued an address to the men of Surrey to support the Charter.

In the early 1840s John Watkins a Chartist activist moved into Upper Marsh in Lambeth. He wrote regularly for the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star, was a supporter of teetotalism, was the London Chartists full-time paid lecturer. As well as writing plays on themes of the struggle for democracy and rights such as Magna Carta and Wat Tyler, he wrote an influential Address to the Women of England. In 1842 he moved into Battersea. When his father-in law died, he published The Life, Poetry and Letters of Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn-Law Rhymer. The couple later moved into Grover Court, Clapham Rise (later RD), where he died in December 1857 or January 1858.

Clapham in this period was part of East Surrey for Parliamentary election purposes. Under the Poor Law Act the Board of Guardians that was created for the area was named Wandsworth & Clapham.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Stumbling across gems in local histories

Minack Theatre 

Wherever I go in Britain I always try and look in the local history museums, heritage centres and churches.

In July Ann and I were in Penzance for a short holiday and to see Surrey Opera’s performance of the Benjamin Britten’s ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’ at the open air Minack Thetare overlooking the sea.

At Penzance’s Penlee House there is an exhibition of local history. Four things took my interest.

·        Sambo’s Row

Mention was made in the exhibition of a road called ‘Sambo’s Row’. Katie Herbert, the curator, tells me: ‘Local rumour has it that these houses, and then the Crysede factory, were built on a field previously inhabited by a black donkey whose nickname was Sambo.’

·        Roller skating

During the Edwardian boom investment was made through the Penzance Palace and Skating Rink Ltd. One of the Directors was E. W. Phillips, who was also Manager of the Rink Department at Keith Prowse & Co Ltd, and a Director of the Rink Owners Association. Katie Herbert, the curator, tells me that as far as she knows no one has written about roller skating in the town. Its collection includes glass from Penzance Palace and Skating Rinks. ‘The glass has a moulded pattern around the top and the royal coat of arms with "Penzance Palace and Skating Rinks, Ltd" acid-etched below. The Palace and Skating Rink was situated in New Street, with the picture palace above the skating rink. It opened in December 1909 but burnt down on the night of 17th April 1914, as reported in "The Cornishman" of April 18th 1914. The palace was described in "The Official Guide to Penzance 1911 -1914" as having "a maple floor, a splendid electric orchestra and electric light".’

A little more research on the internet provides details about the opening of the rink in Rosalind Claire Leveridge’s DPhil thesis ‘Limelights and shadows’: popular and visual culture in South West England, 1880-1914’ (Exeter University. 2011), and the compnay was struck off the companies register in 1917 (London Gazette. December 1917). 

My Cousin Tom playbill 1839

This playbill advertises ‘For one night only at the assembly rooms Union Hotel Penzance. Master B Grossmith in My Cousin Tom. 29 October 1839.’

Born in 1825 Benjamin Grossmith was famous as a child and juvenile actor. Research on the internet tells us that he continued to perform this play e.g. at Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre on 8 January 1841. (Dublin Morning Register) as part of this ‘great Juvenile Monodramatic Actor’s appearance in his unparalleled Comic Entertainmenis, MY COUSIN TOM. POETS. PROCTORS, AND DOCTORS, AND EYES RIGHT! In which he makes above Sixty Changes, Transitiona, and Metamorphoses, in his Character’. The British Museum has a broadside ‘advertising the performance of Master B. Grossmith, the six year old actor prodigy, in 23 stage characters at the New Assembly Room, Peacock Inn, Northampton on "Wednesday evening next, May 15th, 1833"; with woodcut decorations of his various roles.

His older  brother William Robert Grosssmith (b. 1818) also  performed as a child e.g. at the New Theatre, Bridgnorth, on 6 August, 1825. (Black Country Bugle website). A book about William’s life was quickly written going into a second edition in 1827: ‘The life and theatrical excursions of William Robert Grossmith, the juvenile actor’; republished in 1839. The Victoria & Albert Museum has a painting, and the British Museum an etching of William playing Richard III.

Samuel Hodge, West Indian VC

Penlee House has the painting by Louis William Desanges ‘The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866’ which depicts Samuel Hodge (1840 – 14 January 1868) who was awarded the Victoria Cross in June 1867 for his role in the fighting. From Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, he was a member of the 4th West India Regiment. He died in 1868 serving in Belize. Penlee curator Katie tells me: ‘This is actually one of the most popular paintings in our collection and a great number of historians and VC enthusiasts (mostly in the British Virgin Islands) have written articles on it.’  Jeff Green has written about Hodge at

Hodge has also been written about (February 2016) as part of a Warwick University/British Library project.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Ruskin Square: A Revisionist History - Guest Blog by Susan Oliver

BoxPark was talked about quite a bit during the 16 February 2016 Scrutiny Committee Meeting (webcast here: and I would like to point out a falsehood given at the proceedings.

Mr Matthew McMillan, Development Director for BoxPark, says at 29.15 that BoxPark “is using a piece of land that wouldn’t be used otherwise.”

That’s not true.

CTT Co-operation with Stanhope

Stanhope had approached Croydon Transition Town (CTT) to get involved with the land and we had started to transform the area into something more hospitable for the public. 

The following is taken from the 5th September 2013 CTT minutes, with the most important parts underlined:

At the end of August, CTT members met the architects, sub-contracted by Schroders, who are responsible for making best use of the space (Ruskin Square) before and after the new buildings have been built.
South London Botanical Society had identified 150 species of plants growing there and the architects would like to see some of the space being used for a community garden or something along those lines. If we’re able to get something going, again with the participation of people living or working nearby or passing through East Croydon, then it’s possible that it would be retained when Schroders start building...

Volunteer Input

After our initial August meeting, other CTT volunteers and I put in between 50 and 75 hours of volunteer time at the site.  We would get the key from the reception desk at AMP House to open the locked door. 

Although heavily over-grown, it was clear that effort and expense had been expended in establishing an area for activity.  Paths had been clearly established and further delineated by ropes. There was a handball court close to the Dingwall Road gate and I recall something that looked like a poly-tunnel.  Mounds specially built for wild-flowers lie closer to the tracks.  The survey done by the South London Botanical Association was formatted into an expensive-looking booklet but, sadly, not widely distributed.

It was my understanding that employees of AMP House used the area as a place to take their lunches, exercise and use the handball court. 

Open ‘House’ 21 September 2013

A public opening was held on 21 September 2013 as part of Open House London,  where people came and enjoyed the grounds; tables were set up, some selling food and drink from local establishments.

This is all to prove that BoxPark wasn’t always the chosen messiah of Ruskin Square and that Stanhope was planning to work much closely with community members to develop it.  This would have resulted in a space that was much more creative and directly supportive of businesses and organisations already established in Croydon than the BoxPark proposal.

BoxPark: “big, brash and in-your-face”

During the Scrutiny Committee meeting, at 34:00, Jo Negrini gives a colourful justification for BoxPark by asserting that, at the time, Croydon needed something “big, brash and in-your-face; something to say that things were changing in Croydon.”  

That means they wanted to hit people over the head with the look and feel of wealth.  Apparently Croydon Council believes that giving the right impression - which means creating an image associated with money, trendiness, superficiality, and material success - is the most important aspect to running a successful economy.

Let’s not turn away from the fact that this ethos is also driving the Fairfield refurbishment. 

Nor should we shut our ears from the gleeful laughter of Roger Wade, BoxPark CEO, who’s set to make a ton of money to say, “Things are changing in Croydon.” 

Stanhope Subsidies BoxPark

The public should also have the right to reject the terms of the rental arrangement between BoxPark and Stanhope.  I actually yelled out loud when it was exposed during the meeting webcast that Stanhope was giving them free rent for the duration of the project!

This is weird.  When does a developer give free rent to a wealthy business? 
This rental agreement amounts to a generous hand-out to a very successful commercial operation. Is this what we do in the U.K., help the wealthy? 
It is deeply suspicious that Stanhope has given BoxPark free rent for such valuable space when most other restaurants and cafes have to pay a landlord.  Why has BoxPark been given these miraculous terms?  How are ordinary businesses supposed to compete in an economy where megaliths are given such boosts? The Council or Stanhope itself needs to explain this arrangement because I am left with grave concerns.   

Stanhope Schroder was on course to create something very special for Croydon until someone stepped in and convinced them – or strong-armed them? – to make way for BoxPark.   A park is not “big, brash and in-your-face” but, like the Hippocratic Oath, it does no harm.  It would not have brought in competition to restaurants and cafes already operating in Croydon. BoxPark will. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Four Black Women in 1840s England

On 17 March leading history of Black Britain Jeff  Green talked about four black women in 1840s England at Black Cultural Archive with different origins: one born in slavery in America, another born ‘free’ in America, a third born in Jamaica and the fourth born in England. They are Zilpha Elaw, Agnes Foster, Elizabeth Magness and Harriet Ann Jacobs. 

This postings sets out the general points he made about them

‘Presenting information on people of African descent in Victorian Britain exposes several problems as well as our ignorance of black lives. British documentation is inconsistent in the use of ‘coloured’, ‘negro’, ‘black’ and so on –  and official documents are blind (there was no ‘racial’ notification in schools, street directories, cemeteries etc). Females are often obscured or ignored for the era was male-dominated.’

He hopes ‘that stereotypes about and ignorance of black Victorians will be weakened by this and similar researches.’
Having then sketched out the lives of each woman Jeff then teased out some general conclusions.
‘Zilpha Elaw’s life in Britain needs investigating but we can be sure that as a female evangelist she experienced critical comments. Her social circle would have been nonconformist Christians. We know far more about the African American evangelist Amanda Smith, active in Britain in the 1890s whose autobiography was published in London in 1894 and a biography in 1916 the year after she died.

Agnes Foster’s pioneering role in founding the Salvation Army in Jamaica is firm, but the lives of her children need investigating. Her life as a farmer’s wife in Yorkshire is outside any stereotype.

Elizabeth Magnes(s) is a very uncomfortable tale of one – perhaps two? – person’s experiences, exploited and driven to alcoholism. The terminology used in accounts of fairground and circus performers (such as ‘freaks’ and ‘human oddities’) is unpleasant but Joanne Martell’s study of Millie-Christine McKoy, subtitled Fearfully and Wonderfully Made published in North Carolina in 2000, reveals a triumphant life.

Harriet Jacobs has a firm place in the history of American feminism and in the documentation of the abolitionist era. Perhaps I am the only person who wonders how much of her narrative is true? There were several black speakers who toured Britain from the 1830s, obtaining funding and selling tracts and narratives. Jacobs could have moved into these circles without much trouble. Her brother relocated to England in the 1850s. The weekly Leisure Hour magazine of London published his ‘A True Tale of Slavery’ in four instalments in February 1861. We know about him because of his sister.

The presence of these four people in Britain – and our ignorance of their lives – shows we still have much to do to understand the black participation in British life. Each piece placed in the mosaic adds to our knowledge. The well-known Mary Seacole and Sarah Forbes Bonetta are not diminished by the stories of these four women.’
Jeff’s sketches of the lives of each of the four women can be seen on his website -
Zilpha Elaw page 149, Harriet Jacobs p. 151, Agnes Foster p. 156 and Elizabeth Magness p. 159.
Details of other black women in Victorian Britain are
Sarah Bonetta p. 20
Jane Rose Roberts p. 51
Ellen Smith p. 59
Coloured actresses p. 82
Black women p. 93
Black swans and black nightingales p. 120
Amanda Smith p. 130
Ida B. Wells p. 130
Hallie Quinn Brown p. 130
Ann Styles p 131  
Mattie Lawrence p. 153
Martha Ricks p. 158
Sarah Remond p. 152

The Case Against Elected Mayors

Back in 2008 my friend Tony Belton, then Labour Leader on Wandsworth Council, wrote a piece against elected Mayors, It was on my old website until it shut it down earlier this month. Given the Government wants to have more elected Mayors it is worth posting what Tony wrote here.

The Despatches programme of 21st January and subsequent debate poses a simple question, “Is it Ken Livingstone or the role of the London Mayor that is at fault?”

The programme gave plenty of ammunition to those, who might think that Livingstone is the problem. It raises issues about cronyism at City Hall, about dubious grant decisions, about the Greater London Authority members’ ability to scrutinise Mayor Livingstone’s actions and about Ken Livingstone’s personality. 

Livingstone’s reply in the February 4th New Statesman is, however, robust and convincing. Moreover, Livingstone was positive in his defence of the Mayoral role in a recent Today interview. He declared that he had originally opposed the role as proposed by Tony Blair and doubted that it was appropriate for London, or indeed anywhere else in Britain. But he claims to have been converted and to doubt that he, or anyone else, could have introduced anything as radical as the Congestion Charge under the traditional
committee structure of British local government.

Leaving to one side whether the Congestion Charge is or is not a sufficient justification for the role as defined, it is surely time to analyse the success or failure of the Mayoral role and the demands it places on individuals. Has Tony Blair’s radical, even revolutionary, change to the British local government system been a vindication of his confident assertion “that we are at our best when we are at our boldest” or has it
demonstrated instead the dangers of unconsidered innovation?

The Greater London Act of 1999 established the role and function of the Mayor and the Greater London Authority (GLA) following the overwhelming Referendum result of 1998. In the Referendum, the London public had decided by a 78:22 majority that it wanted to reverse Mrs. Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council. Even Conservative-dominated Bromley voted 57:43 in favour of the reform and in every other Borough the result was more emphatic.

The Act establishing the GLA also became a model for other local government reforms passed by the New Labour Government, especially the Local Government Act of 2000, which was the legislative basis for establishing the Executive Mayors and Cabinets that are now part of English local government. Ken Livingstone was elected Mayor of London in 2000 and two years later in May, 2002, Doncaster, Hartlepool, Watford, Lewisham, Newham, North Tyneside and Middlesborough elected Executive Mayors.
They were followed by elections for Mayors in Stoke, Mansfield, Hackney and Bedford in October, 2002, and in Torbay in May, 2005.

But the turnout for the London Referendum was a meagre 34%, whilst for the Mayor and GLA it was an even more anaemic 31%. The equivalent referenda in the Boroughs and cities had a wide range of turnouts. In areas where the Mayoral system was rejected the range was between 9% and 64%. At the Mayoral elections turnouts ranged from 15% to 36%, with 18% at Mansfield and 26% in Hackney, though Mansfield’s turnout rose to 34% in May, 2007.

What had happened to inspire this sudden change in England’s traditional local governance arrangements? And indeed was it such a change? Certainly two of the objectives were clear. It was claimed that electoral turnout needed to be improved and “democratic accountability” needed to be strengthened. The inspiration came from two major sources: one political and the other academia and the media world. English local government had traditionally and universally been considered boring, worthy and probably more efficient and less corrupt than most of its equivalents in the developed world. It was probably most graphically displayed in the opening scenes of the iconic Room at the Top (pub. 1957), which sent a clear message of just how boring and square a job in local government really was. Indeed, it continued to be galling, as a
councillor, to read newspaper articles starting with phrases like, “I shall start with the two most boring words in the English language – local government” (Guardian, some time in the 90s).

This began to change when in the 60s Governments of both persuasions used local authorities to achieve national housing targets. In the 70s a new, self-confident graduate generation of mainly London councillors challenged the government’s “right” to lay down not just the framework but many more of the rules of local government. By the 80s, for the first time in post-war history, local government was far from boring. On the left there was Lambeth and Liverpool, but also Islington and Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC), challenging the Thatcher government politically and ideologically. On the right Bradford, Westminster and Wandsworth were privatising services and along with Croydon urging the abolition of the GLC, the ILEA and the metropolitan counties.

The Labour Councils, including those caricaturised as the “loony left” Councils, of the 80s were not only battle-grounds for such groups as Militant and their fellow travellers but also a nursery for many aspiring young politicians, who were to get into Parliament on 1st May 1997. At least half a dozen MPs post-1997 had been Leaders of London Labour Groups and many more came from similar positions across the country.
Most of them had had a difficult time controlling, or not, their Labour councillor colleagues and were all too ready to go along with a Government scarred by the experience of the 80s and eager to ensure that its own reputation would not be destroyed by irresponsible or naïve local representatives.

The academic world was providing an answer, which fitted very neatly with both their personal experiences and the inclinations of Tony Blair. A key player in this was Professor Gerry Stoker. Stoker was the founding Chair of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a contributor to influential Labour think tanks like Demos and an author of many books and articles on local governance.
Another was Paul Corrigan, husband of Hilary Armstrong, Blair’s first Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions with responsibility for Local Government. Along with Simon Jenkins, the journalist, they popularised a view that local government was insufficiently accountable and/or interesting and as a consequence it was a prey both to the extremist left and the nimby right.

In an interesting, if later, work (New Localism, Participation and Networked Community Governance, Univ. of Manchester) Stoker etched a sociological history of local government, in which he argued that local government had transmuted from the “traditional public administration” model, the Room at the Top model, through the “New Public Management” model, his description of the minimalist Nicholas Ridley model, to
today’s “Networked Local Governance”. 

In the first of these models the agreed objectives of local government were simple, even if large and technically complex. The objectives were about providing housing, drainage, roads and schools. The leadership of such authorities could be left to large, mass political parties, whose basic stance was generally understood. 

In the second model, where ideally local authorities would meet once a year and award service contracts to service providers, the goal was again simple – the most efficient delivery of services at the lowest cost. Unsurprisingly under Mrs. Thatcher’s administration, Conservative-controlled Councils such as Bradford and Wandsworth were in the vanguard. In this model governance was hardly an issue. Ridley thought that
ideally a Council Election would take place annually, or four-yearly depending upon location; the Council would meet and allocate service delivery contracts and then the Leader and Cabinet could simply get on with the job of governing. 

The Ridley model had one big advantage over the experience that most Labour councillors (and future MPs) had in the 80s. Because the goals were simple, the model facilitated the rise of powerful and focused Leaders. They may not have had quite the aura of a Livingstone but Dame Shirley Porter of Westminster, Eric Pickles of Bradford and Sir Paul Beresford of Wandsworth had a clear sense of direction and strong united groups behind them.

There was, however, a major disadvantage. What were the other 60 or so councillors on the authority supposed to do? Michael Heseltine came up with his own version of this in the early 90s when, as well as advocating elected executive mayors, he suggested that councillors should concentrate on their casework and become community representatives. 

Peculiarly enough this was essentially the same conclusion that New Labour came to under Tony Blair. The process started with the optional introduction of Executive Mayors and Cabinets in 2000 and 2002. In the GLA Act the Blair Government did not quite have the courage to install a Mayor, unconstrained by other members of the authority, but it did the next best thing. A Greater London Authority was created with 25
members performing an overview and scrutiny function.

But from its creation it had less chance of scrutinising the Mayor than any other elected body in the UK, whether Parliament or the humblest local council. Fourteen members were elected to represent mega-constituencies with populations of about 450,000. The other 11 were elected by a form of proportional representation by all Londoners. This structure was designed to ensure that it was impossible for any one party to “win control” and operate as a real check on the Mayor. New Labour reformers had argued, and were to continue to do so, that one fault with local government was that few knew who their councillors were. Ironically, they created the 25 most unknown councillors in history!

That was not, however, the only or even the major weakness with the institution. The ultimate sanction in the British Parliamentary (and Council) system is the potential loss of confidence in the Leader. Less seriously, Parliament and Councils can refuse to vote for policies or pass budgets. The first of these options is not open to GLA members – they can merely scrutinise and comment. The second is almost denied them. Rejection
of the Mayor’s budget is only possible with a two thirds majority, which given the 25 members of the GLA means that 17 of the 25 members have to oppose. Quinton Hogg once described British democracy as an ‘elective dictatorship’. 

Ironically, New Labour with its emphasis on new localism and democratic participation has managed to create an elected Mayor with all but dictatorial powers. Blair, of course, expected to have a “business-man” Mayor. The last thing he expected was a Mayoral candidate, who knew London, had experience of running it and with the charisma to win. The other Mayors have similar, if slightly less powerful positions. Once given
their four year mandate they are secure in their position. In NLGN’s own words, “A mayor is equally responsible to the whole city, borough or council, unlike a council leader who has been directly elected from only one ward amongst many and whose power is derived primarily from an ability to retain the support of other councillors (or, more likely, the dominant political party).”

Accountability “to the whole city, borough or council” may have theoretical advantages but the writer fails to understand that having “ability to retain the support of other councillors (or, more likely, the dominant political party)” is not just a valuable political asset, but a much more immediate and far more effective system of
accountability than a once in four years election. It is a crucial “check and balance” in the system.

Recent Government White Papers suggest that the lesson has still not been learnt. For example, it is now suggested that where directly elected Mayors are not introduced then Leaders should be elected by their fellow councillors for four-year terms. There seems to be no recognition of the reality of political life at Council level, which is simply that, if the Leader loses the confidence of the councillors, even if only of “the dominant political party” s/he will last no time at all and if s/he does not lose that confidence then
they have no need to be protected by national legislation.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little evidence that other claims for the new governance system have been justified. For example, much of the anguish about the state of local government relates to electoral turnout. But using London Boroughs as an example the evidence from 2006 is not encouraging to the reformers. In Hackney, despite going to the same polling booths on the same day more people actually voted for their
councillors than for the Mayor. The Borough-wide turnout was 34.41% and the Mayoral vote just 32.24%. In Newham the turn-out was 34.41%, but in non-Mayoral votes on the same day Bexley managed 42.35%, Greenwich 35.81% and Richmond 51%. 

Wandsworth is an interesting example, which suggests a different explanation for differential turnouts. In Wandsworth turnout rose from 34% at its inception in 1964 to 49% in 1978 and then in the following four elections in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 to 54%, 51%, 57% and 51%. However, the 1998, 2002 and 2006 elections have seen turnouts falling again to 40%, 30% and 34%. This exactly mirrors the very tight nature of the political contest in the 80s and the very much less closely fought battles since gentrification took strong hold. In other words, and unsurprisingly, people seem to have a greater tendency to vote when it looks likely to make a difference. 

A similar explanation might apply in Hackney. Although the disparity in figures is not very great, surely it is conceivable that the 2.17%, who voted for their councillor in Hackney wards but not for their Mayor, either did not know who the Mayor was or thought it a non-contest with Mayor Pipe certain to be returned to office.

So in practice neither turnout nor accountability has been improved by the introduction of the “Executive” Mayor. Indeed lack of Mayoral accountability is a major platform of the “Bring back democracy” campaign in Lewisham and the move to abolish the Mayor in Doncaster. Indeed on 27th February 2007 Doncaster Council responded to an 11,000 signature petition by voting for an abolition referendum, which is due to take place on 1st May this year.

Interestingly googling “remove mayors” brings up 705,000 results, including Doncaster and Lewisham but also many, many examples of electors trying to remove executive mayors in many of the United States and other places round the globe. The last remaining argument for the Mayoralty, used by Ken Livingstone and his supporters, is the claim that only the new Mayoral power enabled him to introduce the Congestion Charge. The philosophical basis of that argument, “the end justifies the means”, is so shallow as to be unworthy of Livingstone. But it also demeans his previous achievements. As Leader of the Greater London Council, with traditional local government powers, he was capable of introducing the equally radical and challenging Fares Fair policy, which had a similar and possibly greater impact than the Congestion

None of this is an argument to deny a vote to Ken on 1st May. If you believe, as I do, that Ken’s record has been overwhelmingly positive for London (despite his crazy dalliance with high rise developments!) then voting for him must be the correct move for a Londoner. The Conservative Party’s irresponsibility in putting forward Johnson as an alternative effectively robs the electorate of any real choice.

However, personal power on the scale of the London Mayor’s would be enough to turn the character of a saint. It is, therefore, incumbent upon politicians, of all persuasions, to resist the introduction of any more Executive Mayors, to reform the Greater London Authority’s constitution, to restrain the Mayor’s role and to give real power and influence to its members. Politics is and should be a pluralist process, and emphatically not an elective dictatorship.

(February 2008)