Pieter Lawrence

Ken’s (Capitalist) Plan for London

Source: Socialist Standard, May 2002.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Darren O'Neil
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

In March Ken Livingstone, world famous Londoner and now Mayor, issued his document Planning for London's Growth. It seems that everyone loves Ken, except that is, the ruling clique of the Labour Party. They can’t stand him, so they had him booted out. One reason was that Ken wouldn’t submit to their control-freakery. Another is that they suspect him of holding radical ideas which only shows that as well as being intolerant and manipulative, Blair and his gang of party bosses are prone to fantasies.

Ken Livingstone’s document may not do much for London, but it does prove that, like them, he is happy to work with the economic forces of capitalism that are driving the capital’s growth. In fact he seems proud of them. He tells us, “London is already Europe’s financial capital and one of the three great financial centres of the world. It is a unique and irreplaceable asset for the UK.” In answer to any charge of radical thought, there can be no doubt that Ken is totally innocent. Under Ken, it’s capitalist business as usual and probably, even more than usual.

The document shows population trends and changes in London’s pattern of employment since the l970s. It also projects these to the year 2016. It appears that London is going to get even bigger. “The Capital’s population, which fell to 6.8 million in the 1980s but is now above 7.4 million, is projected to exceed 8.1 million by 2016.” Having absorbed numbers equal to Sheffield during the 1990’s London is set to grow by the equivalent of the population of Leeds.

Catalogue of problems

And what jobs will all these people be doing? London’s problems should indicate where the work will be concentrated. On housing the document says that London has “. . . some of Europe’s worst slums less than a mile from a central financial district that is the richest region in the continent”. “A disturbingly large number of London’s homes are unfit for people who will be expected to contribute to an expanding economy of new employment opportunities.” “It has become impossible for people on average incomes to afford homes in many parts of the capital.”

On health, “The number of patients treated within one hour in London’s accident and emergency services is the lowest in the country.” “Life expectancy for men in East London is among the lowest in the country.”

On poverty, “Child poverty rates in London, after housing costs, are 43 percent, by far the highest in the UK.” “Income distribution between the wealthiest and poorest households is far more polarised in London than elsewhere.”

Much of this echoes the Strategic Planning Advice For London issued in 1988 by the then London Planning Advisory Committee. For example, on housing, it said, “About one million households have insufficient income to house themselves satisfactorily.” So, it appears that since 1988 not much has changed.

Nevertheless, Ken Livingstone’s approach is confident and upbeat. He has no doubt that it can all be sorted out within the capitalist system. The document says: “The Mayor’s policies demonstrate that solutions to apparently intractable issues can be fashioned through an intelligent combination of investment and clear priority setting.”

In view of this we would expect priority to be given to practical ways of raising the standard of living of the millions of working class people in London who live in poverty. There is not a word about this. But then Ken Livingstone and his group of optimists have no powers to decide the distribution of incomes, nor could they have any clear idea of what is going to happen to the economy of London as it functions within its wider capitalist context. The problems are not “apparently intractable” within the capitalist system they are definitely intractable, as the history of failure shows.

If meetings people’s needs were the aim then we would have expected a forecast of massive expansion of building and construction jobs so that poor housing could become homes fit for people to live in. Curiously the number of people in construction is forecast to reduce from 211,000 to 160,000 between now and 2016. There should surely have been a forecast too of more jobs in health services. The document lumps health and education together and shows a modest increase of 50,000. But as a proportion of the extra numbers of population by 2016 this is not significant.

Waste of labour

Ken does anticipate more jobs but not in anything to do with real needs. Mostly these will be in Business and Financial Services which are forecast to increase by almost 500,000. And what will these people be doing? They will be part of the Stock Exchange, the offices of the Bank of England; they will be in the Money Markets, Clearing Banks, Overseas Banks, Merchant Banks, Discount Houses and the Insurance Companies. They will be in the commodity markets and export and import merchants. They will be in the growth of the State Machine.

Karl Marx had an idea this would happen. In Capital he wrote, “The capitalist mode of production, while on the one hand, enforcing economy in each individual business, on the other hand, begets, by its anarchical system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of employments, at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.” (Vol 1, Part V, Ch XV11-1V)

But it is doubtful if even Marx could have imagined the number of people now concentrated in London as a great accumulation of wasted labour. Often highly trained to run this mad system, they occupy buildings and devour useful services such as transport and energy supplies. By 2016 the number of people in Business and Financial Services is forecast to be 1,865.000.

But with the abolition of the profit system all jobs to do with buying and selling, i.e. banking, accounting, invoicing, wages and salaries, etc., will disappear. A sane way to live will mean that people will simply co-operate with each other to produce useful things, not for money but only for needs. We would also provide ourselves with important services and the amenities that make life pleasant. With a system of distribution where we enjoy free access to what we agree to make available, the destructive forces of a money, profit driven economy will no longer rule. This means that with the introduction of socialism, adding many other socially useless occupations to those in Finance and Business, the jobs of probably well over three million people in London will become redundant.

Notionally, this also means that these millions of people will become available to do something useful. Perhaps the much needed work of improving housing, health services, making an efficient and safe transport system, cleaning up the environment and making London a good place for everyone to enjoy. However, this prospect may not be quite so straightforward.

Wider options

Redundant accounts clerks, price markers, till operators, currency and share dealers do not automatically become skilled carpenters, bricklayers and electricians. And even if they could quickly adapt their skills, though London has many problems would it really require the efforts of millions of workers for any extended time to set them right? And would over 8 million people really wish to remain concentrated in one great conurbation?

London has developed in ways determined by the history of its commercial, financial and administrative functions. Its division of labour results from the economic drives of the capitalist system. But it is most unlikely that this would correspond with how in socialism a city would be arranged in accordance with the well being of its citizens, enjoying life in a pleasant environment.

In the past, some socialist discussions have assumed that a breakdown of the division between town and country would be desirable. But in Britain, a dispersal of city populations could raise its own problems. To begin with, to feed the many millions of hungry people in the world, every acre of good quality land will be vital. Town and Country Planning would surely continue to preserve countryside, and in any case, coast-to-coast suburbia does not sound attractive.

Cities would still be great cultural centres. We need not go along with Marx and his scathing dismissal of “the rural idiocies,” in recognising that around the world, cities will still be home to great universities, museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres, and libraries. It makes sense that these should be near each other for ease of access. To enjoy these, together with great festivals such as those for music and sports, means that London would also have to provide accommodation and be host to many visitors from other parts of the world.

It is not the purpose here to suggest what decisions will be made in socialism. The point is to emphasise that with communities in greater control of their destiny their decisions would be made in greater freedom. Ken Livingstone’s Planning for London’s Growth is right to say its growth is “being driven by globalisation”. By this he means the economic forces of world capitalism. This is not new. It has been true since mercantile capitalism got under way in the 16th century but it need not continue. The decision to end capitalism and establish socialism will immediately expand our options on what should be a balance between town and country and the kind of cities to be enjoyed.