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banner Tuesday, 4 April, 2000, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
London's last government

The old GLC building on the Thames is now an aquarium
City-wide government will return to London after its generation-long absence in May 2000.

And depending on how the ballot papers stack up the man who headed the capital's last government, Ken Livingstone, could find himself back in his old job.

The capital's last ruling body, the Greater London Council, was abolished by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in March 1986.

The controversial decision never had the backing of Londoners and the debate still rages over whether its demise was a sincere attempt to cut back bureaucracy or whether it was simply an act of political spite on the part of the prime minister.

But whatever the motives London became the only capital in Western Europe unable to choose its own governing body.

An alternative government

The reasons for this were many. The Thatcher government had found itself unable to tolerate an energetic campaigner against many of its policies, in the shape of the GLC, even though it had a democratic mandate equal to its own.

That the new Greater London Authority may turn into a platform to preach opposition to the government of the day is also a concern of Tony Blair's.

Margaret Thatcher curbed much of local government power
This tension between the practical need for the capital to have a strategic body to organise its affairs and the willingness of politicians to hand powers over from Westminster to a potential competitor has a long history.

London government has been slow to evolve exactly because those in charge at Westminster for much of the 19th century feared what the urban masses may do if too much power was handed out to them.

A similar story existed in the early 20th century when London government's powers were minimal until wielded imaginatively under a Labour administration led by Herbert Morrison during the 1930s.

Clash of cultures

But under Mr Livingstone the clash of cultures between the urban socialist - who said he probably reminded the then prime minister of the people her parents warned her not to talk to - and Margaret Thatcher was so strong its outcome was the abolition of the GLC.

The government moved to strike down its neighbour across the Thames in earnest as the 1983 general election approached.

It was to be a landslide election victory for the Conservatives, and included in their manifesto was a pledge to abolish the GLC along with the six metropolitan councils across the rest of the country.

'Wasteful and unnecessary'

That all the councils were Labour controlled was simply a coincidence, argued Tory Environment Minister Patrick Jenkins.

That year's party manifesto called the GLC a "wasteful and unnecessary tier of government". Ministers were also concerned that the grants the council handed out to various groups from peace campaigners to gay rights groups were creating a permanent constituency for Labour voters.

The dislike of the GLC's current rulers was shared by the tabloid press with The Sun calling Red Ken "the most odious man in Britain" after he called for dialogue with the IRA and welcomed Sinn Fein leaders to the capital while London was suffering terrorist attacks.

But ironically the decision of the government to remove its troublesome neighbour saw support for Mr Livingstone and the GLC soar.

Abolition turned Livingstone from villain to hero
Although some of the GLC's polices on issues like Ireland - or even that the GLC actually had policies on Ireland - alienated many voters, other policies such as Fares Fair, which saw dramatic cuts in undeground fares and decreases in car use, proved popular.

'Say no to no say'

But the government's decision on abolition had little support, especially once the GLC geared up an effective publicity campaign - stamping its name on all the services it ran, making Londoners aware of its activities on their behalf.

Not only was abolition a divisive move, the government's decision to cancel London elections scheduled just before the curtain was due to fall on the GLC also caused anger.

Ministers correctly feared that the media savvy GLC leadership would use those elections as a referendum on the GLC.

Instead it decided to cancel the elections and for the remaining year or so of the GLC's life, before the abolition bill could pass through Parliament, the Tories planned to have appointees from the London boroughs run the council.

It was a move that would change Labour control to Tory - and it found little support among government critics and those on the Tory left.

It even saw the government defeated on some of its proposals in the House of Lords.

Although ministers argued that defeat in the normally solidly Tory upper chamber was due to the combination of Ascot and Wimbledon competing for the attention of some of the less dutiful peers.

But despite the abolition bill taking up more parliamentary time than any other bill of the second Thatcher government, Number 10 did eventually get its way.

And although Labour is now moving to bring back London government, there are still clear tensions between the GLA Westminster wants and what it is afraid the GLA may become.

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See also:

02 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Labour contemplates Livingstone victory
29 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Police chief attacks Livingstone
29 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Tube bond plan 'more expensive'
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