The first term of the Thatcher-led Conservative government that took power in 1979 saw the Tories battle with many opponents. Some of the most vociferous criticism of Tory policies came from Labour-run local authorities. A fact not lost on Maggie. Her particular bete-noire was the Greater London Council (GLC), run by a young Ken Livingstone, based in County Hall – pretty much opposite the Houses of Parliament, across the river Thames. One of Livingstone’s goading tactics was to plaster the current (very high) unemployment rate across the front of County Hall just in case the prime minister overlooked the rate of joblessness.
Thatcher couldn’t abolish all local councils – where Labour retained its dominance in urban Britain. But she decided it would be feasible to wipe out seven ‘metropolitan’ county councils including the GLC. Needless to say all were Labour run – and in fact, the party’s strength in these bodies increased dramatically under Thatcher’s first term. For example, the West Yorkshire County Council saw Tory representation go from 54 seats and control in 1977 to just 14 seats in 1981. Same story on the West Midlands County Council which also swung from Tory control in 1977 to Labour in 1981.
It might surprise you to know that even the Greater London Council was Tory in 1977 – when the sitting Labour government of prime minister Jim Callaghan was struggling with economic crisis. The Tory leader of the GLC in the late 1970s was the flamboyant Horace Cutler who foreshadowed many of the policies and approach of Thatcher. But by 1981, Labour had taken control and Ken Livingstone was very much in charge. Thatcher decided to put an end to that.
The 1985 Local Government Act was a brazenly political piece of legislation dressed up as ‘streamlining’ government. What it contributed to was a process of political centralisation that has continued ever since with arguably destructive and disenfranchising consequences. The GLC was wound up and its headquarters, County Hall, was divided up by developers into a hotel, horror show experience, McDonalds and ticket office for the London Eye.
In a way this perfectly exemplified the spirit of Thatcherism – the conversion of a building that heroised local democracy into a home for businesses. In the process, it robbed Londoners of their own unifying council which was only returned as the GLA at the turn of the 21st century. The area around County Hall today is frankly, to my mind, one of the naffest tourist traps in the city.