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