Electoral History of the Greater London Council

Prelude: End of the London County Council

London Government structure is inherently political. When Labour took control of the London County Council in 1934, Herbert Morrison became Leader and swiftly turned the administration into a Labour flagship. The LCC's powers were very extensive and Morrison managed to effectively force money out of the central government to pay for the new Waterloo Bridge in 1937. The Labour administration became popular with Londoners, and Labour's control was challenged only once afterwards (fought off by the election of more Labour alderman).

As more people moved out of central London and into the suburbs outside the LCC boundaries (fixed as long ago as 1855), the Labour control became unchallengeable and so the Conservative government moved to create a council covering the whole greater London area which had a decent chance of being Conservative controlled. In 1957 Sir Edwin Herbert was appointed to head a Royal Commission on the matter, and in 1960 this reported in favour of an enlarged area of London where new London Boroughs were to be the primary institution of local government, and a Greater London Council having fewer powers than the LCC had. However, many outer areas fought a successful campaign against inclusion in the area on the (mistaken) basis that it would increase their rates.

The 1964 Elections

The GLC was first elected on 9th April 1964 with each London Borough as a multi-member constituency. Unfortunately for the Conservative government, the smaller than expected area for the council combined with the unpopularity of the government to produce a decent Labour victory with 64 Labour and 36 Conservative councillors. This was a good performance by Labour, with swings of 6% up to 10% in marginal boroughs. One of the beneficiaries, winning the furthest eastern borough Havering, was William (Bill) Fiske who became the Leader of the Labour Group and therefore Leader of the Council. Labour also did well to win Bexley and Hillingdon but was unlucky to miss out on Enfield.

The Labour administration proceeded with its new expanded jurisdiction as though it was a continuation of the LCC, specifically concentrating on road-building. In this it was helped by the fact that the Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, was the wife of GLC Alderman Ted Castle.

The 1967 Conservative landslide

The GLC first came up for re-election in April 1967. This was at a time when the Harold Wilson government first became unpopular. The elections in 1967 produced a Conservative landslide with 82 seats to Labour's 18. Labour won only the working-class East End boroughs, together with Southwark and one seat in Greenwich. Labour's performance was worst in its safest seats - a 20% swing in Islington - but in general the 1967 election was not so much of a disaster in votes. The effect of the large multi-member constituencies was to greatly exaggerate the winning margin. Shortly after the election, one of the Conservatives in Greenwich was found to be disqualified and resigned, leading to a narrow Labour gain in a byelection.

Nevertheless it was a severe shock to the London Labour Party to find Sir Desmond Plummer becoming the first Conservative to run London since 1934. The residual Labour Group, finding itself without a Leader due to the defeat of Sir Bill Fiske, fell back on Reg Goodwin, a decision which was to have profound consequences later. The Plummer administration was in keeping with the moderate Conservatism then dominant, though it did pioneer the sale of a few council houses. Another decision to have important ramifications later was the decision by the Labour government to transfer responsibility for London Transport to the GLC.

The Conservatives re-elected: 1970

The 1970 elections took place in the midst of fevered General Election speculation. In the event, despite Labour making some gains, the Conservatives were re-elected. Labour managed to regain control of the Inner London Education Authority (made up of all GLC councillors for inner London seats, plus one nominee from each inner London Borough) and Ashley Bramall became Leader.

The 1970 results were interpreted positively by Harold Wilson at the time (he even speculated that if they had been held a month later, Labour might have won). It is very difficult to support this theory given the very small swings in many of the boroughs. In 1970 Labour merely recaptured seats it should never have lost.

There was a high degree of incompetence in the administration of the 1970 elections. In Harrow, over 25,000 votes were incorrectly added as a result of major discrepancies in the count - which was only reversed at a full recount. In Haringey, five students sought election with various descriptions ('Bread and Circuses Party', 'Campaign for Non-Political Social Awareness', 'All-Night Party') declaring that they aimed to make a mockery of the election. As a result of the GLC administration's transport policy, a slate of 'Homes Before Roads' candidates stood in most areas. With upwards of 80,000 ballot papers with up to four votes for more than twenty candidates, counting was becoming a great chore. With councillors representing an electorate of 200,000, there was a difficulty in bringing a sense of local representation.

Electoral Reform

Accordingly, the electoral basis was changed in 1972 so that single member constituencies identical to those for Parliament were used. This had been intended to happen from the time the GLC was started, but when the government delayed the impact of the 1969 boundary review, implementation could only take effect for the 1973 election. The 1973 GLC election took place during a time of great unpopularity for the Heath Conservative government. In planning for this election, Labour put a great deal of effort into its manifesto 'A Socialist Strategy for London', which eventually totalled 10,000 words. Though it originated in the right of the Labour Party (most of it had been written by Labour group leader Sir Reg Goodwin himself), it had a distinctly left-wing flavour of massive public sector housebuilding and compulsory purchase of private-rented accomodation, freezing and then abolishing London Transport fares.

Labour take the power

On cue, the electors delivered a sizeable Labour majority with 57 seats to the Conservatives 33. Some of the Labour seats were not won again until the 1997 election, some not even then (eg Carshalton). Undoubtedly the Conservative administration's road-building policy (urban motorways) helped win a lot of Labour votes. The Liberals also did very well at this election in winning two seats (Richmond and Sutton - the latter repeating a Parliamentary byelection victory). They also came close to taking Enfield North - having come from nowhere and swiftly returning there. In Croydon North East, the Labour candidate managed to beat the Conservative but was unseated more than a year later when the Court of Appeal decided that the ballot papers without the official mark would have affected the result. The Conservative Billie Morgan then won her seat back in a byelection.

The new intake of Labour councillors was a diverse one. For the first time a member of the Militant tendency won a Parliamentary-level election (David White in Croydon Central), and several other left-wingers won seats (notably Ken Livingstone in Norwood). There was also however a sizeable component of the Labour right, including Douglas Eden (Feltham and Heston) and Dr. Stephen Haseler (Wood Green). This stored up the potential for problems should the administration be blown off course by events.

Goodwin changes tack

In keeping with the enormous size of the GLC, the events which blew Sir Reg Goodwin's administration off course were international in origin. The oil crisis of 1974 and the spiralling of inflation had a disastrous effect on GLC finances because of its 1.6 billion debt, and dramatically increased the cost of the commitment to freeze London Transport fares. The GLC rate had increased by 46% in only one budget, and it would go up by more than 200% before the next election if the commitments were kept to. In May 1974 the leading councillors went to a meeting in Aldermaston and decided that a change of policy was needed, though the other Labour councillors were not told - they simply noticed a proposal at the next Labour Group meeting to increase London Transport fares. The left managed to join with right-wingers connected with the transport unions, and those who felt a fares increase before the October 1974 General election (and the GLC byelection in Greenwich shortly after) was political suicide, to hold off the decision.

After intense lobbying, including threats of the resignation of Sir Reg Goodwin, the leadership won approval for a widespread cuts program and a fares increase. Many were won over by a pledge to safeguard the housing investment program, but in early 1975 a further cut of 50 million was proposed in that area. This was intensely unpopular with the Labour government - so much that the Special Adviser to the Environment Secretary telephoned individual GLC members to tell them not to support cuts. Eventually it was implemented, at the cost of the Chair of Housing Development, and after a speech by the new Chair claiming to have found 50 million savings which would not impact on the program.

The road to the 1977 elections

All of this created intense antagonism in the Labour group, on both sides. Part of this was created by the personality of Sir Reg Goodwin, who suffered from an inability to communicate with colleagues. There are two views on how he responded to pressure - the first is that he gave the impression to everyone that he agreed with them, the second is that he actually did agree with them and so would always finally agree with last person to leave his room. Some on the right were as annoyed with Goodwin as the left were, and with the Labour government growing increasingly unpopular there was a sense of desperation in the Labour group about the 1977 elections (the term having been increased to four years). Some GLC councillors who had won marginal seats moved to safer ones - Ken Livingstone moved from Norwood to Hackney North, Tony Banks from Fulham to Feltham and Heston. Some were unsuccessful - Jim Daly, from Brentford and Isleworth, lost selection in several safe seats before eventually ending up where he started.

The Labour Party split began several months before the election. Two right-wing Labour councillors - Stephen Haseler and Douglas Eden - were expelled for their vociferous attacks on the leadership. The day before the Labour manifesto was published, Ken Livingstone and other left councillors denounced it.

The Conservative Group also changed in the run-up to the 1977 elections. Sir Desmond Plummer stood down and was replaced by Sir Horace Cutler in 1974. Cutler, a director of property and finance companies and former Mayor of Harrow, had been the last Leader of Middlesex County Council before it was abolished in 1965. His policies fitted in well with the suburban north London values of the then Conservative national leader Margaret Thatcher.

Cutler in control

On Thursday 5th May 1977 the Conservatives reversed their 1973 defeat to win with 64 seats to Labour's 28. Both the Liberal councillors lost. Labour had lost more than half of the seats it had won in 1973. The swing was particularly high in working-class East London seats, an early indication of the Conservatives' good performance there in the 1979 General election. Some Conservative gains in 1977 were however never repeated - Tooting and Leyton. Many safe Labour seats had tiny majorities - the three Islington seats all had majorities under 1,000. Edward Leigh succeeded in recapturing the Richmond seat from the Liberals after many years of campaigning.

Sir Horace Cutler was an eccentric political campaigner who thrived on publicity. He admitted attempting to produce some gimmicky, way-out ideas in order to get attention, and often succeeded. He was always in the newspapers - such as putting his head in some oversize scissors, to symbolise cuts in administration. The GLC under Cutler was populistic and dogmatically right-wing, encouraging the hiving off of GLC services. Selling council houses, tried under Sir Desmond Plummer, became the order of the day and was lauded by Mrs Thatcher. However Cutler's media relations had a downside - he frequently made outspoken attacks on London Transport workers in particular, without checking to see what he was saying was true. In order to back up his comments he had to change policies frequently, and attracted a reputation as erratic. His nominations to the London Transport Executive were often unacceptable to the public service ideals of the Chair, Sir Peter Masefield - who managed to get them withdrawn by threats of resignation.

Developments on the left and the very left

Sir Reg Goodwin retained the Labour leadership when Labour went into opposition in 1977. He was growing in his unpopularity and the Labour chief whip, Harvey Hinds, was receiving hints from many councillors that Goodwin should be told to go, yet nothing was done because of complicated personality politics within the Labour group. The natural heir was Illtyd Harrington who was an extravagant orator on the left. Unfortunately for Harrington, the far left disapproved of him for having pushed through the cuts programme during the Goodwin administration, and the right regarded him as unreliable. Sir Reg Goodwin meanwhile did not groom an obvious right-wing successor (preferring to form friendships with officers). Eventually, in April 1980, Goodwin resigned in typical form: he left twenty-eight photocopies of his resignation letter on the Chief Whip's desk when Harvey Hinds returned from holiday.

The leadership contest produced three candidates - Illtyd Harrington, Andrew McIntosh (the leading right-winger, and the only councillor to have been tipped off in advance by Goodwin of his resignation plans), and Ken Livingstone, then regarded as a far left no-hoper. Livingstone decided to play tactics - telling Harrington supporters that Harrington could not win. Meanwhile a number of councillors who were voting tactically against either Harrington or McIntosh voted for the seeming no-hoper. Livingstone emerged top of the first ballot with 10 votes - the other two candidates obtaining 9. There was a run-off for second place in which Livingstone voted for McIntosh, whom he had a better chance of beating; McIntosh won. In the final round, McIntosh won 14 votes to Livingstone's 13, and two abstentions (one of which was a devoted Harrington supporter). His support was half tactical, as shown by the ballot for Deputy Leader in which he only had 7 votes to Harrington's 21.

Accordingly Labour went in to the 1981 elections with a right-wing leader, but a credible left-wing challenger. But the left had much more strength in the constituencies than it had on the council. One way in which this was felt was in candidate selection - the left directly organised to ensure the selection of as many of its members as possible. Mandatory reselection having already passed, there was the prospect of some deselections - Sir Reg Goodwin in the left-dominated Bermondsey constituency was the most senior, though as it turned out the instances were almost all due to age and not politics.

The left influence most strongly exerted itself in relation to the manifesto. The London regional executive had passed a left-proposed motion to itself take control of manifesto drafting, instead of letting the GLC Labour group do it. This meant a heavily left-influenced manifesto which at 50,000 words was longer than virtually all General election manifestoes. In an inspired move, the finished manifesto was submitted as a minority report to the council - forcing the GLC to bear the cost of printing it and selling it at a subsidised price. But McIntosh and other right-wing figures presented the manifesto as Labour policy and strongly committed themselves to it.

1981: A Labour squeaker

The 1981 election campaign took place at a time of one of the clearest ideological divides in British politics. On one side the Conservatives had developed their pledges of rolling back the frontiers of the state, on the other Labour were pledged to increasing services and the rates to pay for them. As usual in British politics, the central government was in midterm unpopularity, and so the balance was in favour of Labour. Labour had won a byelection with a left candidate in Lewisham East. Sir Horace Cutler had arguably in his last year pursued a form of scorched earth policy by forcibly transferring virtually all the GLC's housing stock to the boroughs.

The campaign was dominated by lurid Conservative claims of an imminent left takeover packaged with the reassuring moderacy of Andrew McIntosh. Sir Horace Cutler was in his element leading the charge: in the Daily Express a week before polling day, he claimed the aim was to 'establish a Marxist power-base in London from which support can be given to the wider movement to take over the Labour Party, and from which a concerted effort can be made to unseat the Government of the day - even a Labour Government if it puts nation before party.' McIntosh always denied there was a realistic challenge. On 7th May 1981, London polled and from 10 PM the votes were counted.

At first, it seemed Labour was on course for a big win - Ken Livingstone having moved to a Tory marginal, Paddington, won it with ease. But in the final figures, it was much the closest GLC election. Labour failed to win several marginals with left candidates - such as Brentford, Hampstead - and peformed very poorly in the three Lambeth constituencies where the borough council had just levied an extra supplementary rate. Ted Knight saw an increased Conservative majority in Norwood - the only such case. In terms of the vote, Labour obtained 42% to the Conservatives' 40%.

Liberal performance in the 1981 election was mixed. They recaptured Richmond, where they had successfully put the squeeze on the Labour vote. The party secured big rises in vote in some constituencies such as Deptford and Harrow Central, but subsequently these were shown to be temporary phenomena. The party suffered from competition with Social Democrats. The SDP had yet to be launched as an election-fighting machine; candidates were sponsored by the Social Democratic Alliance which had been formed by Stephen Haseler.

He won the votes but did not count

The day after the election, the new Labour group met. Ken Livingstone had managed to get the meeting put back to 5 PM, allowing a left caucus to meet earlier and agree on a slate of candidates. Andrew McIntosh meanwhile went on to give a press conference, and Labour leader Michael Foot prophesied "It's going to be fine because you, Andrew, are in charge". Taking his word for it, the Evening Standard headlined "The Left Lose Out .. Moderates 'in control'". However, by the time the left caucus met, more than half of the new Labour group was there. It ended with a full slate of left candidates for all posts, a quarter of an hour before the Labour Group. Andrew McIntosh hoped to rely on a letter endorsing him from Michael Foot, but when he handed it to the regional Labour Party secretary George Page, Page refused to read it out. A ballot was called immediately for Leader and Ken Livingstone won by 30 to 20.

Livingstone managed to secure the support of Deputy Leader Illtyd Harrington (despite having killed off his ambitions of being Leader) and Chief Whip Harvey Hinds (for whom he had caused so much trouble). Hinds was a rightwinger but knew that a rightwing leader would simply result in even more troublesome left rebellions. The meeting then went on to elect the whole left caucus - McIntosh had expected to win and then get the meeting to allow him time to plan an administration. At the first council meeting Sir Horace Cutler taunted him 'There lived a man on Highgate Mount, he won the votes but did not count.'

"London's Ours!"

As Ken Livingstone developed his administration, it provided plenty of examples for the Conservative press to produce anti-left wing stories. Livingstone claimed to have learnt everything about public projection from Sir Horace Cutler - but he was much better at it, and Cutler was quite envious of his success. But it was not to be an unchallenged left-wing takeover of London. A GLC supplementary rate to pay for cutting London Transport fares, beginning on 1st October, was challenged through the courts by Conservative-controlled Bromley, and for what was regarded by Labour supporters as ridiculous reasons, the challenge succeeded. One moderate Labour councillor, Anne Sofer, sought re-election as an SDP candidate and kept her previously safe Labour seat; another, Paul Rossi, followed - cutting the Labour majority to four. Many of the moderate Labour councillors did not consider themselves bound to support what they regarded as a disloyal leadership, and the Conservatives could occasionally combine with rebelling Labour members to win votes.

Yet the majority of the left agenda did go through, and rather disconcertingly for the Thatcher government, Ken Livingstone was becoming popular. The Prime Minister began casting around for ways to restrict him - the government had already put forward legislation to punish over-spending local authorities by removing their grant, but a few years in the GLC was by already spending so much that it had lost all its grant anyway. Mrs Thatcher's constant refrain on local government was 'Do something'.

Abolition of the GLC: Streamlining or Derailing?

Demands to get rid of the GLC were not new. In the mid-1970s under the Goodwin administration, many outer-London Conservatives were becoming opposed, and Geoffrey Finsberg (MP for Hampstead) produced an abolition scheme. Westminster Council was opposed, knowing that the majority of the GLC's income came from central London because of the rate precept system. Opposition was not confined to Conservatives; one Labour alderman, Oliver Stutchbury, resigned for the party to fight the 1977 elections (with 30 others) on an abolitionist platford. The London Boroughs of all parties had long believed they could do most if not all of the GLC services. The Cutler administration invited the former Conservative Leader of Leeds City Council, Sir Frank (later Lord) Marshall to report on the GLC's future in 1978, and the Marshall report advocated devolving many GLC powers down to the boroughs (including the abolition of ILEA). Rather surprisingly, Ken Livingstone's response to the report was to express regret that it did not advocate outright abolition.

However, when a paper on abolition was put to the Cabinet in 1983, it only concluded 'in principle' that the GLC should be abolished. Senior Conservative ministers thought that abolition would be so complex that it could not be done, and ordered more work done on it and a solution to the problem of big rates rises. Shortly afterwards the 1983 election was called and Mrs Thatcher ordered abolition to be put in the Conservative manifesto, as well as a proposal that had been rejected several times for the central government to have the power to limit rate rises. On 7th October 1983, after the Conservative victory, a White Paper called 'Streamlining the Cities' was published setting out how abolition was intended to proceed.

Crazy Paving

Because of the timing, abolition could not have been achieved by 1985, which meant that unless something was done there would be another GLC election before abolition. A special bill paving the way for abolition was therefore put through to cancel the elections, and substitute a joint board of borough councillors for the GLC in its final year. It did not pass unnoticed that this would pass control from Labour to the Conservatives who had the majority of boroughs at the time. The Paving bill produced a revolt by (among others) Edward Heath in the House of Commons, and when it reached the House of Lords, a cross-party amendment was carried against the government to prevent the elections being cancelled until the main abolition bill had become law - which could not happen until after the elections were due. Faced with this, the government backtracked and introduced its own amendment to cancel the elections and extend the term of the existing GLC until abolition.

The response of Ken Livingstone and the GLC leadership was to resign their seats and fight byelections on the issue of abolition. All four seats were held by the Conservatives at the 1983 elections. There was considerable disagreement within the Conservative Party over whether to fight; the opinion polls showed that they were likely to lose, and eventually Central Office persuaded local associations not to stand. The Alliance fought the byelections on an anti-abolition platform. One Conservative GLC councillor, George Tremlett (who had once been thought of as a potential Conservative leader) chose the time of the byelections to publicly oppose abolition and joined Ken Livingstone on a platform at a press conference; he was subsequently expelled. Labour won all four byelections, but with very low turnouts.

Nimrod: A mighty hunter before the Lord

A government with such a large majority was never likely to lose the actual abolition bill. It went through and abolition was set for midnight on 31st March 1986. In its last year there were byelections for three seats, but the Conservatives boycotted all but the safe seat they held. Labour managed to lose Vauxhall to the Liberal Mike Tuffrey in July 1985. The last year of the GLC was dominated by attempts to find jobs for the large GLC staff, and the GLC hurriedly getting rid of its assets to friendly borough councils. In the last week, the GLC put on a farewell festival at neighbouring Jubilee Gardens. At midnight on 31st March the GLC flag was slowly lowered to the strains of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

County Hall, for so long the object of Conservative ire (Ken Livingstone having provocatively put the London unemployment figures in big letters on the terrace), was earmarked for disposal by the London Residuary Body, a quango set up to sell off the rest of the GLC assets. The main building (known as the Riverside Building) was sold on 29th October 1993 to Shirayama BV Ltd, in circumstances that prompted a National Audit Office report - though this concluded that nothing improper occurred. It is now partially reopened as an aquarium and restaurant complex. On the southern edge of the building in gold leaf lettering is a reminder that it was the Home of London Government from 1913 until 1986.

Retrospect: What London needs

In the whole electoral history of the GLC, three facts stick out:

  1. The GLC's powers and responsibilities were never stable.
  2. Only one GLC administration was ever re-elected.
  3. On every occasion, the GLC election was won by the main opposition party in national politics.

In the whole history of London local government, one central dilemma stands out, as relevant to the discussions when the Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1854 as it was when the LCC was established in 1887, as it was to the creation of the Metropolitan Boroughs in 1900, as it was to the Herbert Report of 1960 and the creation of the GLC, as it was to the abolition of the GLC. It is still relevant now in the government's proposal for an elected mayor and assembly. A century ago, the Marquess of Salisbury put one side of the argument:

"Your so-called municipality is I believe something like ten or twelve times larger than any other municipality in the country .. we should have seen that we might have obtained a much more efficient machine .. if we had been content to look on London as what it is - not as one great municipality but as an aggregate of municipalities."

Is London one city, or is it several towns which have merged together? The person who can answer that question for good will have be in a position to set the framework of local government in London for the 21st century.


  • Achievement: A Short History of the LCC (Jackson): A nearly official history of LCC activities in 1939-64 (1964).
  • Beyond Our Ken (Forrester, Lansley, Pauley): Based on research for LWT's London Programme, this book outlines the possible structures for local government in London (1985).
  • Citizen Ken (Carvel): A biography of Ken Livingstone by the Guardian's Local Government correspondent (1984).
  • If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It (Livingstone): Ken Livingstone's own autobiography/history of his GLC administration (1986).