To be honest, until now this blog wasn’t talking about the London election. But two weeks ago Sadiq Khan was elected as London’s Mayor – and even when all the journalistic hype is stripped out, the election of a Muslim Labour Mayor with a record personal mandate is an historic event. Sadiq is a South London boy, so this seems like a good moment to get a bit of South London historical perspective.
The 2016 election for London’s government was the latest in a series which goes back over 120 years. The first in that series was the election to the newly-created London County Council (LCC) in January 1889.
In 2016 London reaffirmed its status as a Labour city. North of the river, Labour’s ascendancy is clear. In South London, the Tory/Labour balance seems to be split 50:50 if we look only at directly elected Assembly members – but when we break down the votes cast for Mayor, South London too favours Labour. Sadiq got 450,000+ votes to Zac Goldsmith’s 420,000+. So in 2016 South London, like London overall, leaned to the left. How does that compare to 1889?
First, some context. In 1889 the area covered by the newly-created LCC was smaller than that covered by the Greater London Council (GLC) from the 1960s, or the Greater London Authority (GLA) today. In South London the LCC took in a string of industrial communities along the river – Battersea, Lambeth, Southwark, Bermondsey, Deptford, Rotherhithe, Greenwich, Woolwich – and a clutch of mixed residential suburbs to their south – Wandsworth, Clapham, Brixton, Kennington, Newington, Camberwell, Dulwich, Lewisham, and a bit of Norwood. But it excluded Richmond to the west, Croydon and Sutton to the south, and Bromley to the east.
Secondly: in 1889 the electorate consisted of just over half of adult men – about 60%. This included upper- and middle-class men, and skilled or better-paid working-class men who could show that they were ‘householders’. But many male workers who weren’t householders, or who couldn’t negotiate the complex registration process, were excluded. Women, of course, couldn’t vote at all, whatever their social class. But as we shall see, this didn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t stand for election.
Thirdly: the main political parties in 1889 were not Tories and Labour, but Tories and Liberals. The Labour Party didn’t yet exist. Its forerunner, the Independent Labour Party, was formed in 1893, and the Labour Party itself in 1900. But trade unions were actively organising, and there were various socialist groups, including the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) which organised large and combative demonstrations against unemployment.
Finally: in addition to reflecting local issues, local elections often also respond to national politics. In the 1880s the great issue dividing the parliamentary parties was Ireland. Most Liberals were in favour of Irish Home Rule, while the Tories were against. In 1889 the Tories were in power, having won the 1886 General Election with support from a breakaway faction of ‘Liberal Unionists’.
Tories and Liberals were effectively – but not officially – the two main parties in the LCC election as well. Most of the candidates were middle class men – businessmen, professionals, ‘gentlemen’, even one ‘Lord of the Manor’ – and most stood as individuals rather than as party candidates. But once the election was over, the successful candidates with seats on the Council quickly organised themselves into rival factions: the de facto Liberals called themselves ‘Progressives’ while the de facto Tories were ‘Moderates’.
And as for the result: in 1889 as in 2016, London leaned left. The Progressives (Liberals) won 72 council seats to the Moderates’ (Tories’) 46. And since elected councillors had the right to top up their numbers with ‘Aldermen’, the Progressives were able to make their majority even safer.
South London also leaned left. Each voting area elected two councillors, and the Progressives won clean sweeps in North Camberwell, Peckham, Greenwich, Norwood, Walworth, Newington West, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, and Southwark West. The Moderates were dominant in Clapham, Dulwich, Lambeth North, and Woolwich. And elsewhere – in Deptford, Kennington, Lewisham and Wandsworth – the spoils were shared.
Battersea and Brixton, meanwhile, each had its own special story to tell, as we shall see.
The LCC election results give us a snapshot of South London politics in 1889. Unsurprisingly, the industrial working-class riverside constituencies were overwhelmingly Progressive except for Deptford, Lambeth North, and Woolwich. The special factor at Woolwich was perhaps the presence of the Royal Arsenal, providing thousands of local jobs and a reservoir of popular patriotism, at a time when the Tories were using the Irish question to present themselves as the ‘patriotic party’.
In the suburbs to the south the election results also hint at class distinctions, with Progressive votes coming from working class and lower middle class terraces in Peckham, Norwood and Walworth, while Moderates won support in the upper middle class villas of Clapham and Dulwich. But then as now, South London’s suburbs were a social patchwork, poverty cheek by jowl with affluence. And then as now, it’s dangerous simply to ‘read off’ political allegiance from social class. In our own recent election, the result was certainly influenced by class, and by issues of gender, ethnicity, and age-group; but also by party policies, campaign wheezes and gaffes, perceptions (accurate or not) of candidates’ personalities, and the rules of the electoral game. So it was in 1889. This is illustrated by events in Battersea and Brixton, each of which offered a glimpse of things to come.
In Brixton the two elected councillors were a Progressive and a Moderate. But the two candidates with the highest votes were both Progressives. Question: why was a successful Progressive candidate ousted by a defeated Moderate candidate? Answer: because she was a woman. Lady Sandhurst was the winning Progressive candidate, an upper-class lady of liberal views, hardly a threat to the established order, but her defeated Moderate opponent, Charles Thompson Beresford-Hope, went to court to argue that as a woman she was not eligible to sit on the LCC. The court agreed, and in this way Beresford-Hope slunk into a seat that he been unable to win.
North of the river another similar situation arose, but with a different outcome. In Tower Hamlets, Jane Hobden was one of the two elected candidates, and in third place was another Progressive, Edward Cook. Cook was a supporter of female suffrage, and refused on principle to follow Beresford-Hope’s example by challenging Hobden’s election. She therefore took her seat – at which the Tories once again went to law and obtained a ruling that she could sit but not vote. Despite this, Jane Hobden played an active role on the Council, attending Committees and taking part in its discussions.
In Battersea, meanwhile, the candidate with the highest vote was John Burns.
Burns was a local folk hero, a socialist and trade unionist. Through the 1880s he had been active in the SDF, and helped organise their massive demonstrations against unemployment. Within months of taking his seat on the council, he was back on the streets helping to win the Great London Dock Strike. But that didn’t stop him from throwing himself into Council work, where he outraged his SDF colleagues by pragmatically allying himself with the Progressives. He was a passionate supporter of the LCC’s programme of slum clearance, and fought for the law to be changed so that both the LCC and borough councils could act directly to build new homes. One result was the Latchmere Estate on Burns’s home ground in Battersea: good-quality housing built directly by a local authority, on ‘Garden City’ principles. (For more information go to http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.asp?ID=WND027 )
Despite all this, John Burns never joined the Labour Party. Despite being a socialist, trade unionist, and pioneer of council housing, he joined the Liberals, was elected to Parliament as a Liberal, and in later years was a minister in a Liberal Government. Burns believed in a broad progressive alliance, with the Liberal Party as its natural centre.
How times have changed.