Efficiency savings, 1908-style

David Wedgwood Benn, whose grandfather was a founder member of London's first council, recalls some

Arguments about how to finance public transport; a capital city that had long been denied its own elected government; accusations of "socialistic" experiments; questions about who should control the police. It all sounds familiar, and it all goes back a very long way.

London was one of the last areas of the country to get its own elected government. The London County Council (LCC) came into being in January 1889, predating the birth of the Labour Party itself by 11 years.

In those days the competing groups on the council used labels that were supposed to take local government out of politics. But the Progressives, who held power for the first 18 years of the LCC's existence, were clearly on the left. They were backed by the Liberals - my grandfather John Benn, a former Liberal MP, was a founder member of the council - but included Labour pioneers such as Sidney Webb. The Moderates, who defeated the Progressives at the polls in 1907, were the Conservatives in disguise.

Despite the disguises, the issues of the time had a strongly political and sometimes bitter flavour.

In 1908, for example, there was an outcry over a plan to extend the recently created municipal tramway network from Aldgate to Bow in the East End. The newly elected Moderate majority had grudgingly accepted the existence of municipally owned trams. But they were bent on "efficiency savings" and claimed to have found a much cheaper way of supplying electric current to the trams. They decided to replace the established system - of supplying current from underneath the road - by a system of electric studs in the middle of the road, on the surface. But the studs were potentially lethal; though nobody was killed, tramcars caught fire and horses were electrocuted. John Benn, by then the opposition leader on the council, denounced the "stud" system. He was sued by its inventors. He lost his case in the High Court and faced damages of £12,000 (£540,000 in today's money). He faced imminent bankruptcy. Bailiffs moved into his home. On appeal, however, the verdict was overturned. And the stud scheme was dropped.

When the LCC had first met in January 1889, it faced formidable problems. The water supply, controlled by eight different companies, was often unfit for drinking. Only in 1902 was a Metropolitan Water Board set up. London's transport was chaotic. There were 13 privately owned horse-drawn tram companies operating with different gauges; commuter misery was made worse because none of them crossed the Thames bridges.

But the Progressives introduced cheap London public transport in the form of electric trams. The private tram companies were gradually bought out as their leases expired. The first LCC electric trams were inaugurated in May 1903 and continued to run until 1952. But they came up against stubborn resistance, especially from the Conservative parliament of the day, which disliked not trams as such, but public enterprise. Not until December 1906 were the first trams allowed to run across Westminster Bridge.

For Benn, a one-time chairman of the LCC Highways Committee, the tramways served a wider social purpose. He believed that the revenue from fares could be used not only to reduce rates but to alleviate what he called "the distressful and disgraceful conditions" of the poor. A tram fare of a halfpenny was introduced for workmen. Tramway employees got a minimum weekly wage - of 25 shillings - and worked a maximum of 60 hours per week, against 70 or 77 hours in the private companies.

Among the other long-lasting achievements of the Progressives were the assumption of responsibility for elementary schools, the vast extension of public parks and open spaces and the beginnings of public housing. It was the Progressives who cleared slums to make way for the development of Aldwych and Kingsway in central London.

The Progressives were neither socialist nor doctrinaire, but were driven by great fervour. For Benn, the son of a nonconformist minister who had grown up in poverty in the East End, the reform of London was nothing less than a moral crusade. His ideas were in some ways far more radical than any put forward today. He wanted London, like other cities, to control its police - an idea that had been ruled out in the 1880s by the home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, who feared "Irish outrages". Even more radical was Benn's scheme for financing London. He fought for an equalisation of the rates, pointing out that "the districts that have the most need have the least money". He demanded that the City should be merged with London as a whole and thus made to pay its proper share of the rates.

Meanwhile, the LCC incurred vehement right-wing hostility. In 1894 the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, who was to become prime minister again in 1895, violently denounced it as "the place where Collectivist and Socialistic experiments are tried". In a biography of John Benn written in 1925, the distinguished Liberal journalist A G Gardiner blamed London's problems on two main causes: the selfishness of the City and the "subconscious hostility at Westminster to the creation of a rival power at the doors of Parliament".

So, many of today's problems are of long standing. London has been relentlessly commercialised, with a predictable widening of the gap between rich and poor and an underfunding of public services. Today, as in the past, many London voters remain convinced that there are some problems which cannot be solved by market forces. The most effective remedy is the mobilisation of voter power - just as the Progressives had hoped a century ago.

After their defeat in 1907, which was partly the result of a campaign for rate reduction orchestrated by the Northcliffe press, including the Daily Mail, the Progressives did not regain control of the LCC until the 1930s, when the left returned to power under the Labour Party. Whether this election campaign will inaugurate another long period of power for the left, in whatever form, remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis