A Very London Coup
Party workers gathered at Neil and Maggie Fletcher’s house (she had finally been released by the police) as news of Thatcher’s victory came through. Most shared Peter Shore’s view that Thatcher would be so bad that Labour would have a walkover next time but I feared that a leader with firm beliefs and money from North Sea oil would be hard to dislodge. As every GLC election had been won by the party in opposition at Westminster I expected Labour would win the GLC in 1981.
One who agreed was Bill Bush, Reg Goodwin’s new head of office, who was already disillusioned. When Labour had lost the GLC election two years earlier Peter Walker went to his office after the results to find a letter from the head of personnel saying that his four-year contract as Reg Goodwin’s political adviser had ended and he should leave the building immediately. Senior officers hated Goodwin having a political adviser and were horrified when Horace Cutler did the same.
Peter went to pastures new so Goodwin appointed David Candler, a Labour party official who had worked for Wilson in Downing Street. But Candler was friendly with Michael Halls, the liaison officer from MI5 to Number 10. Convinced that Wilson’s office was a security risk, Halls used Candler to funnel smears about Wilson to Private Eye. Candler’s conspiratorial and ingratiating manner so alienated everyone at County Hall that he was forced out. With three years to the next GLC election, the twenty-six-year-old Bill Bush was the only credible applicant for the job.
With his laid-back style, humour and radical politics we hit it off immediately. He had a soft spot for Goodwin but wanted me as Goodwin’s successor. We worked together to ensure the next administration would be one we could be proud of and he let me know what was going on behind the scenes. Another break for the left at County Hall was the retirement of Bob Mellish. The new chair of the London Labour party was Arthur Latham, MP for Paddington since 1969 and a member of the left -wing Tribune Group. The left finally had a majority on the regional executive and Arthur was assisted by the arrival of Ron Todd, regional organiser of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The London TGWU had been led until then by Bert Fry, a right-winger who ensured trade union members on the executive supported Mellish. Aft er Bert’s autocratic style Ron was a breath of fresh air, allowing union reps to express their own views without
fear of being purged.
My key allies on the executive were Michael Ward, a workaholic Wandsworth councillor, Jeremy Corbyn, a NUPE regional officer, and David Nicholas, a Wandsworth councillor whose courtesy, calmness and genuine interest in others made him one of the nicest people I ever met in politics. He had the task of producing our manifesto for the 1981 GLC election. A year earlier the Observer had reported that the new GLC Labour group was ‘sadly lacking in obvious leadership potential if Sir Reg decides to go, and there may be a move in some London Labour parties to persuade the leading left-winger, the young and thoughtful Mr Ken Livingstone, to seek the succession’.
Roy Shaw, the Camden Council leader, laughed with disbelief at this description but apart from Ted Knight and Tony Banks no one else was in the frame as the left ’s candidate. Fares would be the most difficult area so I asked David Nicholas if I could chair the Transport Working Party, knowing that my leadership chances would be boosted if I could find a solution to the problem. With the retirement of Bert Fry the right on the executive was led by John Spellar, the key organiser for the right-wingers who ran the electricians’ union. He tried to block me by nominating Brian Nicholson, treasurer of the London Labour party and leader of the dock-workers in the TGWU, but I won by a single vote.
Extracted from You Can't Say That by Ken Livingstone, out now, published by Faber.