Radical London In The 1950s
by David Mathieson
The French have a saying: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. As I was growing up oblivious in the vicinity of the Elephant & Castle, across the river in what is now my more recent home borough, Camden, rehearsals were under way for the world I would know in my mature years.
There was a split in the Labour Party. Trotskyite entryists were alleged to be causing havoc and activists were expelled. Nuclear weapons caused controversy and division. A Tory government was launching attacks on the working class and pandering to their property-owning chums while a housing shortage and unaffordable rents left people living in squalid conditions at the mercy of Rachmanite landlords (in this case, including Rachman himself). The police let loose mounted thugs on protestors and indulged in the kind of violence familiar to those who later witnessed Orgreave, Wapping or the Beanfield. The Communist Party abandoned and betrayed campaigns they could not control. The victims of Toryism and reactionary Labourism were left to suffer the consequences of weakness and incompetence as they were fed the cowardly message that “resistance is futile”.
That’s probably not quite how David Mathieson sees it. The author of this fascinating book is firmly on the side of the conformists in the Labour Party, now and then, hence his ability to obtain the patronage of Alan Johnson, who, in his foreword, cannot resist a cheap jibe at those who seek more radical solutions than he can countenance.
But while his rather partisan approach can be a little irritating at times, the story Mathieson has to tell is well worth rescuing from the dusty corner where it seems to have lain forgotten for sixty or more years.
Despite the title, the book is not really about London as a whole, but the central district of the city that was then the borough of St Pancras &?Holborn, stretching from leafy Hampstead to the then still smoky environs of the stations along the Euston Road. There, in the mid-1950s, the local council came under the control of a group of left-wing Labour members – some of them ex-Trotskyites and ex-Communists – led by the charismatic John Lawrence.
Lawrence wasn’t the only notable figure active in the borough’s politics – Lena Jeger (who succeeded her deceased husband Santo) was a local MP, as was Kenneth Robinson, while Peggy Duff was a councillor, and George and Irene Wagner were active opponents of the radical faction. But it was Lawrence who was the catalyst for the upheavals.
At first these just involved the harmless act of raising the red flag above the Town Hall on May Day – albeit with an inevitable accompanying ‘red scare’ campaign – but they later evolved into a ferocious battle over housing and rents, with surcharges on councillors imposed by the District Auditor, a vicious rent policy imposed by a short-lived Tory council regime, a rent strike, evictions and the ‘riots’. John Lawrence found himself expelled from the Labour Party along with 15 other councillors – which caused an almighty row between Michael Foot and his by-then rightward drifting hero, Nye Bevan – and was then jailed for three months after one particular confrontation between protestors and police.
The rents campaign was, by Mathieson’s judgement, a total failure, and Lawrence, having stood for re-election for the CP and lost dismally, trailing Labour and Tory candidates, returned to the obscurity from which he had briefly emerged. The lessons, we are told, are there to be learned in the heady atmosphere of Labour Party politics today.
On that score, readers will have to make up their own minds, despite Mathieson’s nudging (my own feeling being that the effects of such battles are more subtle and significant than he recognises). The important thing is that this is a valuable piece of history and the author tells the story well (though he could have done with an editor/proofreader to iron out some of the annoying textual errors).
John Lawrence is a difficult character to pin down, but Mathieson does his best (though in his biographical note he fails to mention the man’s later syndicalist and anarchist activity). He points out that much documentation about the St Pancras events remains locked away, supposedly on the grounds of ‘National Security’, which, bearing in mind the relatively isolated nature of this political battle, suggests there was rather more going on than just a rogue council standing up to the government. It could imply that one or more of the participants was an asset of some kind (the Wagners, for instance, worked for British Intelligence during World War II), or that the government was orchestrating events more directly than would have been acceptable. The author himself doesn’t speculate, but just tells the story. He’s done a good job, and this is a rivetting read.
This book is available to Tribune readers for £8.50. See: http://www.tribunemagazine.org/2016/12/book-offer/