London (and everywhere else)

Owen HatherleyRed Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London (Repeater, 2020)

Red Metropolis, the most recent book by the admirably prodigious and prolific writer Owen Hatherley, makes the case that, for all its wealth and concentration of power, London has often been left wing. Telling the story of London’s local government administrations, he focuses on two experiments in radical municipal socialism: the London County Council (LCC) under Herbert Morrison in the 1930s, and the Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone in the 1980s.

In spite of looking back at past actions and political figures such as these, it’s a book that is, at its core, rooted in the present moment. Red Metropolis began life during the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, a time when Hatherley was shielding due to his health and was, like millions across the country, confined to home for months on end. This was a period that was both terrifying and yet, for many, strangely optimistic: the reactions of Britain’s ruling class, from assuming responsibility for housing the homeless on a large scale, to introducing income support, to the nationalisation of transport, to the imposition of wide-ranging curtailments to personal freedom, were improbably remote from the usual policies of the Conservative Party. For a brief moment, it seemed there was an opportunity to imagine an alternative future, and that after lockdown business might not go back to normal. 

Originally conceived of as an essay for New Left Review, and subsequently expanded to book-length, Red Metropolis reads like a piece of journalistic reportage or a long-form opinion piece – and above all as a document and record of London at a particular moment in time – as much as a work of historical research or academic scholarship.

While at times I felt the book is a little lacking in depth and analysis (and some sections, dare I say it, would benefit from the input of a good editor), the book is propelled by Hatherley’s own personal politics and activism, as a member of London’s Labour left. It draws in particular on his experiences in the run up to the 2019 general election, in which the Conservatives (outside London) gained an unexpectedly large majority.

The 2019 election thus sets up one of the central themes of the book: the gulf between London and the rest of Britain, politically and economically, as a capital city which possesses power out of all proportion with the rest of the country it governs. 

This power, Hatherley argues, has historically emanated from three centres. Two of these are long-recognised: the seat of government at Westminster, and the economic powerhouse of the City of London. To these, Hatherley adds a third site, symbolising welfare state socialism: the Southbank complex, conceived in the post-war context as a new cultural centre for London.

As you would expect from a writer who made his name writing popular and accessible, yet critical, books about architecture, the book makes much of the built manifestations of welfare state socialism that characterised twentieth century London, beginning with the large-scale council housing programmes of the LCC, and other amenities such as schools and transport. While this is an important part of the story of London, and integral to understanding its physical environment and infrastructure, there has been considerable scholarship on and media interest in this area in recent years, and it feels like Hatherley has little new to add here; Red Metropolis readily acknowledges the work done by other writers, from John Boughton (Municipal Dreams) to Anna Minton, and reads as a companion piece to their writing. What’s more illuminating is the way in which he links the political convictions and needs of those of those in power to changing attitudes towards housing over time: from the demolition of existing housing stock and replacement by large-scale council housing schemes, to the displacement of the working-classes to New Towns beyond the London boundaries, to the retrofit of existing (often Georgian) houses, to the emergence of co-operative housing developments, such as the high-security Coin Street development in central London, to the introduction of so-called ‘affordable’ housing in private developments via Section 106 more recently.

It’s understandable that housing takes up such a large part of the book: access to affordable, decent homes continues to be one of the biggest issues for people living in London, and there’s little that exemplifies London’s social, political and economic inequalities better than the Grenfell Tower disaster. However, while the book makes some attempt at discussing other aspects of life in the capital, such as transport, migration to the city (both from within the UK and abroad) and cultural provision, and adds a little on education and the media, I’d have liked the role of the labour market, and changing experiences of work and employment, to have been foregrounded too. The availability of jobs (and earning potential) is, after all, one of the major differentials between London and the rest of the country, and one of the key magnets pulling both businesses and labour into the capital and away from the regions.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the fundamental difficulty of defining ‘London’ as an entity, due to the way in which the city has grown over time, swallowing up sometimes far-flung towns, villages and suburbs in neighbouring Essex, Kent and Surrey (and in one case – Middlesex – even an entire county). Hatherley lays bare the political decisions which have influenced which areas are included within its boundaries, and those towns that are excluded from its metropolitan area, as well as the factors influencing cycles of population and depopulation. 

At times I was a little unclear on who the intended audience for Red Metropolis is. As Hatherley points out, London is a young city, and I felt that it was a generation of young, idealistic and already politically engaged readers and activists to whom he is appealing (born in 1982, Hatherley is at the upper end of the millennial generation and, to prove it, drops in the word ‘bougie’ – possibly the first time I’ve ever seen it used in print). This is a generation, observes Hatherley, who never fully experienced the welfare state before its erosion by four decades of neoliberalism. Its appeal, for those too young to remember the GLC, let alone the LCC, he suggests, lays in the fact they never had the opportunity to grow bored of it.

An interesting tension in Red Metropolis, therefore, is between the sometimes bureaucratic and top-down social democratic state of the interwar and immediate post-war periods, and the New Left which replaced it, and which is characterised by Hatherley as representing a more local, grassroots and co-operatively/communal-minded version of the left.

Ultimately, Red Metropolis made me want to go away and read more (particularly about shifts in local and regional government and metropolitan boundaries since the 1980s) – and to spend more time exploring London once travel becomes possible again. I’m also keen to see what comes next. Will the move to home-working catalysed by the pandemic prompt a shift of business away from London? Will Londoners once again leave en masse for more affordable and spacious homes outside the capital, if the necessity for long commutes is reduced? Will London lose its world status in the light of Brexit? Red Metropolis is a record of London in 2020, and how we got to this point politically. To his credit Hatherley ends with some suggestions for the future (chief among them calling an end to London’s rapacious expansion into a megacity, and rebalancing power away from London to give other areas of the country more autonomy). I’m looking forward to reading his take on the state of the city in a decade, five years’ time, or even a year from now.

Natalie Bradbury

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