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London: workers need to take control

The City of London, viewed from the south bank of the River Thames. Photo Workers.

London can either be a huge force for progress in an independent Britain, or a colossal hindrance instead. Which one it will be depends on everyone in the country, not just in the capital…

Over 9 million people live in London, and its population is again increasing. It is by far the largest urban area in Britain, and arguably has been since the days of Roman Britain. London is also the biggest city in Europe and carries worldwide influence. You’d be a fool to turn your back on such a huge concentration of humanity.

But many beyond its confines embrace a disdainful approach to London. Terribly unwise, for either London becomes a huge force for progress in an independent Britain or a colossal hindrance. Our aim should be to make it a bastion of progress, though this will definitely take time as it’s nowhere near being one at present. More important, how can we make it happen?  

London’s pre-eminence means it is – and always has been – a magnet within our country, constantly drawing in new people, particularly the young. It’s either the Great Wen (the disparaging name for London coined by William Cobbett, the champion of ruralism in the 1820s) sucking life out of the rest of the country, or a desirable beacon that has, to use Samuel Johnson’s famous quote from the 18th century, “all that life can afford”. Well, does London drain life out of the rest of the country, or is it merely bigger and different? Certainly it exerts a marked influence on the South East of England and East Anglia.

But all cities must regularly be renewed or face decline and decay. No city has a divine right to coast forever on an earlier reputation or previous contributions.

Fundamental changes in London have increased the power of capital – particularly finance capital – while lessening the influence of working people and the power of working class organisations.


In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, London had a huge industrial manufacturing sector and it was then an industrial city as much as a financial or governmental or service one. Even in 1960 there were still over one and a half million industrial workers, and in 1971 there were 870,000 manufacturing jobs (17 per cent of London’s total). Since then this sector has shrunk by 85 per cent, and by 2010, London became the region containing the lowest proportion of employees engaged in British manufacturing.

Today London manufacturing at 2.2 per cent of the overall workforce is a small part of the capital’s total economy and is less than a third of the numbers working in financial services. Even so, because of its size, London still has more manufacturing workers than, say, Manchester or Leeds, and a similar number to Wales.

‘Once London was a trade union stronghold, certainly leading the engineering unions for many decades…’

How might London’s economy be geared towards manufacturing again, given British capitalism’s hostile attitude towards the restoration of industry? Certainly a shortage of appropriate industrial space, driven by demand for housing, is one obstacle. As is the cost of this space, which is more than twice as expensive in London as most other parts of Britain. People need housing, but they also need work. Social planning must cater for industrial spaces.

Evidently London is already a hub for auxiliary industries relating to design and computer programming, accounting for 33 and 28 per cent of the UK’s total employment in these respective sectors. However, a lot of London’s production is in food and clothing, in retail and hospitality, where workers are often poorly paid.

Once London was a trade union stronghold, certainly leading the engineering unions for many decades. And in the 1960s and 1970s the same was often the case in the public sector too.


With the destruction of manufacturing, and the retreat from involvement in trade unions by members, union positions have been seized by a variety of sectarian politicos out of touch with workers, causing the loss of London’s leading role in the trade unions. Can it be brought back, and how?  

There has been a big transformation on the other side of the class divide too. The major change of tack by our ruling establishment was the Big Bang deregulation of the financial markets in London in 1986, which led to the removal of traditional restrictive practices that were more likely to make bankers cautious. And the Big Bang also brought in the takeover and increasing domination of the sector by large banks, domestic and foreign.

Nowadays the super-wealthy use London as their playground. For the capitalist elites (homegrown and foreign) it is a hothouse in which to grow their capital, the centre of the world’s finance markets.

According to The Sunday Times Rich List, there are in the UK roughly a hundred billionaires with a combined wealth of £653 billion. Around 95 of them live in London. And that’s without the multi-millionaires here.

Constantly we hear the claim that as a leading financial centre our capital city has the ability to attract highly skilled global talent and draw in foreign investment. But does this process benefit working Londoners, or is it malign? The amount of poverty and the general low wages in London indicates it is merely deceitful propaganda.

Significant and damaging consequences come from the London establishment’s wholesale devotion to capital. It is impossible to see how the presence of this global wealth contributes to either the London, or the national, economy.

Interestingly, in the “quality of life rankings” of major world cities, London is not so high, not quite making it to the top 40, which probably corroborates evidence that much of our social infrastructure is inadequate and in need of improvement.

The idea that the City has a massive advantage due to its commitment to the rule of law is wearing very thin. There is a growing climate of financial illegality. The City is a key enabler in Britain receiving many billions of pounds’ worth of criminally derived capital. And then there are its own multiple scandals and fines for malpractice.

A better course

Drastic changes like deindustrialisation and finance capital’s increasingly elevated power have badly altered the political, economic and social landscape of London. What counteracting changes of our own are needed?  What do working people need to pursue and enforce to correct the direction and put London on a better course?

Our focus must be on wages, jobs and proper apprenticeships (especially in manufacturing), upskilling, education, health, campaigns for new hospitals, housing and accommodation. And all this has to be tackled at a time when we will face Austerity Mark 2. The first round brought much damage to service provision and the social fabric. The second round must be resisted. These types of sensible, popular struggles will produce greater class cohesion and assist integration within the working class.

Poverty pay

So many workers in London suffer low wages. People only get one shot at life and low wages restrict opportunities. The only answer to this problem is well conducted wage struggles that will bring the trade union movement back to life.

The London Dock Strike of 1889 showed that unskilled workers could also be organised, sweeping away pessimism and winning significant improvements. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – same today as in the past.

‘The cost of living is the main reason why so many young workers are leaving London…’

There is a higher cost of living within London. According to an April 2020 report by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, a basic standard of living in London costs up to 58 per cent more compared to the rest of the UK as a result of higher housing, childcare and transport costs.

The cost of living is the main reason why many young workers in essential jobs are leaving London to find cheaper areas elsewhere in Britain. This has happened in the past. In the early and mid-1970s there were major staffing crises in many sectors across London. Some unions responded with successful struggles to get an increased London Allowance.

For instance, in 1972-74 the school teachers’ union pursued a long campaign of action including rolling 3-day strikes organised in a guerrilla fashion, culminating in a massive increase in the allowance and substantial back-payments. Unions should see if members are ready to campaign for increased London Allowances again.


On transport, the construction of the Elizabeth tube line is brilliant but an exception rather than the rule. Do we have to wait a few more decades before other additions and improvements occur? Many of the older underground lines need attention. Noise is at unpleasant and even unhealthy levels on many lines.

How do you get things better? For one thing, workplace pressure could get better transport.

Travel across London is not arranged sensibly. We need fewer cars but public transport is not regular or cheap enough. Yet there are lessons in our past we could emulate. In October 1981 the GLC introduced a Fare’s Fair policy. Fares were cut by 32 per cent, resulting in more passengers and fewer cars. Cheaper fares were subsidised, but the benefits to society outweighed the costs.

During the Second World War, there were regular and frequent tubes and buses to get people to essential war effort work in munitions and aircraft factories, for example. You didn’t have more than a 1 or 2 minute wait for a tube. An excellent idea. But why just in wartime? Why not all the time?

Except for its higher cost of living, London is not special and it shares the same kinds of problems as the rest of the country. Other areas should press forward on their needs too.

A struggle for London’s soul has commenced and it is a contest that is likely to be with us for quite some time as so much has to be transformed.

• This article is based on a CPBML public meeting held in Conway Hall, London, on 17 Ocober.

• Related article: What are Londoners like?