Foreword by Hilary Wainwright

Hilary Wainwright profile image from Twitter account

Hilary Wainwright is a British socialist and feminist, best known for being editor of Red Pepper magazine. She is a researcher and writer on the emergence of new forms of democratic accountability within parties, movements and the state. She has documented countless examples of resurgent democratic movements from Brazil to Britain and the lessons they provide for progressive politics.

Hilary was a friend of Kath’s and kindly agreed to write a foreword for the book. She read the initial proof from cover to cover and has provided a very thoughtful overview and context for the book.

This page is NOT covered by the CC-BY Licence. If you wish to reproduce it in a full printed version of the book that is acceptable. For any other purpose, please contact Hilary for permission to use it.

This is a book written with great intensity. It is not a fictional account of the human dramas played out in the corridors of municipal power, like Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. Instead, Kath Fry’s vivid attention to detail takes you inside a real-life local government story replete with tension, tragedy and comedy alongside the predictable routine.

You share the emotions of the moment, from the high hopes, strong bonds and practical determination of the early years of what Kath calls the ‘Manchester revolution’, through the demoralisation after Labour’s national election defeat in 1987, the anger and divisions over how to respond to the Tory cuts, the frustrations of making the leadership accountable, to the pride in improving some services against all the odds. You chuckle at occasional wry remarks about leading colleagues and gasp at absurdities produced by the impact of cuts and the Thatcher government’s compulsory competitive tendering. And you gain an in-depth understanding of the dilemmas of trying to manage a local council to meet the needs of the city’s most vulnerable citizens and at the same time resisting government policy. When is open non-co-operation with the government the right course and what form can it take to be effective? How can the Labour Party focus local anger on government policy, rather than let the Labour council take the blame as Thatcher intended?

The echoes of these struggles and debates reverberate today and there is much in this book from which we can learn. The contrasts are significant too. Compare the large, lively – if often fractious – Manchester City Labour Party of the 1980s with the routinised body it is now, of little interest to anyone beyond the small band of party faithful. Note also the way that trade unions, in many parts of the country, are today developing autonomous campaigns, building coalitions with community and user groups, rather than pursuing their political priorities for local government primarily through the Labour Party.

The detail is sometimes overwhelming, but Kath Fry’s conscientious study provides a unique record. Once you’ve grasped the gist of a particular section, it is easy to skip to the next phase in the drama with the knowledge that you can always return to the full story later.

Thatcher’s war against socialism faces the New Left’s struggle to change it
In practice, the story outlined in this book is driven forward by two of the most important political struggles of the last two decades of the 20th century, which continue in new forms today. On the one hand, there was the resistance to Margaret Thatcher and her band of highly political class warriors, whose political project was, above all, to destroy socialism. At the beginning of Thatcher’s second term, as she was gathering her energies for the home front after victory in the Falklands, she believed, as she put it in her revealingly frank autobiography, that there was still too much socialism in Britain’. Socialism was built into the institutions and mentality of Britain. There was’, she concluded, ‘a revolution still to be made.’[1]

More accurately, Thatcher’s project was a counter-revolution. For her determination to destroy anything remotely connected to socialism was, in part, a reaction to the other central political struggle taking place at this time. This was the effort, from the late 1960s onwards, to remake socialism beyond the false choices imposed by the Cold War, and the ways that these transformative movements built up unacceptable pressures for democracy, economic as well as political. ‘An excess of democracy’ as the Trilateral Commission put it in 1975.[2]

The roots of these movements for radical and comprehensive change – of both state and market – lay in the late 1960s, when they could be seen in the opposition to both the US war in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Their visions and demands were shaped by the children of the post-war boom and the welfare state. This was a generation with high expectations of democracy, a notable self-confidence in its capacities for self-organisation and an instinct to question all forms of authority. There was an underlying sense, after the defeat of fascism and decolonisation, that the perpetuation of elite or paternalist rule and military-style, status-ridden hierarchies was unacceptable, whether in politics, business or daily life. ‘Participatory democracy’ became the watchword of a new vision of socialism, for the state and public bodies and the economy and enterprises alike, the detail to be worked out in practice through challenging the old institutions and creating alternatives in the here and now.

It was this generation, and this vision, that drove the diverse coalition to change Manchester Council, as it was driving change in London, Sheffield and elsewhere. And it was a struggle for accountability, the attempt to deselect Harold Lever, a minister in Harold Wilson’s government who was notably distant and effectively unaccountable to his local party, that brought together the initial core of activists. Participatory democracy became an important theme as the struggle moved on to open up and democratise the particularly hierarchical, rigid and unresponsive workings of the council.

The idea of neighbourhood services, one of many projects in a manifesto that was the product of many months of discussion and collaborative work, was one sign of the influence of the new vision of socialism and the transformed public administration that it required. The aim was not only to decentralise the way public services were managed but also to provide connected, holistic services and involve users in shaping these services and making them responsive to the city’s diverse social needs. This was part of a wider strategy to ‘tackle the bureaucracy’, as Kath puts it in a particularly interesting chapter about the years 1984-1987, before Thatcher’s counter-revolution hit the process hard.

The political importance of process
Underlying the emphasis of the new socialism (at least in its more radical and feminist-influenced forms) on opening and democratising the state was a distinctive self-consciousness about the political importance of the processes and relationships of politics. This did not mean process for its own sake (though there was always the danger that it would be understood this way), but as integrally bound up with the quality of what is achieved. It meant a rejection of ends justifying means, an emphasis on ensuring that the way we do things, the relations between people in the making of change, is consistent with the values motivating the vision of the society we want to create.

Kath’s concerns, evident in the way she has written this book, share this emphasis on the process of making and implementing policy. Indeed, one of the reasons why this book is important is that it documents this process of public municipal reform in detail and with insight and raw honesty. Kath has written a book that sees process, including organisation, ways people relate to each other, forms of leadership and relations of gender, race and class, as political and takes it seriously. In this sense, her book is a lot more interesting than just a local government version of the cabinet diaries that hit the headlines every so often. That in itself would be valuable because it is rare to see the inside workings of local government written as a story of creative and flawed human relationships and idiosyncratic personalities, as distinct from textbooks about structures and funding streams. But the focus of a reflective insider on questions of process allows the reader to understand political successes and failure in more depth.

A missed opportunity for Labour
At this point, it is worth standing back and drawing attention to how, looking back with the help of this book, these attempts to change the organisation to the local state contained vital elements (still as Kath points out a little naïve and in need of further work and above all, testing through experience) provided the basis for a direct counter to Thatcher’s drive to destroy all institutions intended to fulfil social rights and deliver the public good, as distinct from generating private profit – or offer charity. These rich and varied attempts (rich through learning from error as much as because of positive achievements) by Labour Parties in uneasy alliances with trade unions and social movements, to democratise and improve public services could have been a central part of an attempt to reconstruct the welfare state on a new basis, to meet raised and expanded expectations following 1997 – the defeat of 18 years of Tory rule. Instead, as we know only too well, New Labour accepted too much of Thatcher’s definition of the the problem and the solution: state institutions are inherently inefficient; only private business knows how to be efficient.

You might say how could they ignore experiences like Manchester, London and Sheffield too, experiences led by their own party? Their ‘logic’ seems to have been this: it was the Left that kept depriving Labour of electoral victory; the Left has been running local government, hence their experience is of no interest – indeed quite the opposite, they need to be sidelined. The fact that several of the councils engaged in these reforms, generally did well electorally – Manchester particularly so – seems not have broken through a blanket taboo on learning from the radical left.

The influence of feminism
Feminism is important to Kath’s observations and analysis. Her experiences in the women’s liberation movement in Bolton, its consciousness-raising groups and its campaigns, were decisive in the development of her politics. The feminism of the 1970s was not simply about equal opportunities and the presence – or, as Kath regularly observes, the absence – of women at all levels of power. The feminism of this period was a product of taking the ideas of the radical movements of the 1960s and early 1970s – their stress, for example, on the personal being political, on self change linked to collective change, on forms of domination in everyday life and the way we live and work, on the value of everybody’s voices and the importance of sharing practical knowledge, as well as debating theory and programme – and applying them consistently to relations of gender. This led to an insistence that remaking socialism cannot simply be about reworking the vision; it must also be about a different way of being political, and hence of organising politics.

This meant widening definitions of democracy to include domestic inequality, identity, control over sexuality, challenges to how women are represented culturally, and control and access to public resources[3]. The discoveries women made about organisation in the course of overcoming subordination gave us an understanding of the importance for democratic politics and policy making, of the plurality of sources of knowledge rooted in daily experience as well as coming from theory and history. This led to a strong sense of the need for public decision-making to be open and inclusive. And it implied consciously creating positive conditions for egalitarian collaboration, including ensuring that people who might otherwise be silent gained the necessary confidence, making the exercise of power as transparent and accountable as practically possible[4].

Needless to say, we did not achieve all this even in our own organisations. The very title of a well-known and well-read pamphlet about organisational methods in the women’s liberation movement, The Tyranny of Structurelessness[5], first published in 1970, indicates as much. But at least we were generally self-conscious of the problems. And while this approach to the politics of organisation was not essentially female, or essentially feminist, its importance for women in realising their own personal and political independence and self-confidence made women especially aware of its importance for the full democratic participation of all.

In her chapter on ‘Tackling the bureaucracy’, Kath describes an aspect of the old way of doing things that illustrates the wider importance of the new movement-inspired approach as a deepening of democracy and a new understanding of the means of achieving quality. It was not simply a matter of either ‘style’ or political correctness. She outlines how the council management, with the implicit agreement of the councillors, operated a “closed-door approach to the workforce and didn’t consider that staff would have a view on policy or would have anything to contribute”.

In and against the state
In this sense Manchester Council before 1984 was run on the basis of a particularly reactionary version of a traditional and implicit assumption. This was that while the Labour Party’s role was to develop programmes of economic and political reform, it would do so on the basis of a cultural superiority of politicians and senior public servants over the people they were supposed to serve. They, the professionals, knew what was best. By contrast, the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and most consistently the women’s movement, were asserting cultural equality. Their goals concerned economic and social needs but in a context of challenging dominant understandings of knowledge, and hence of people’s capacity – and rights – to participate in public decision-making. This underlay their vision of participatory democracy and the importance to the political process of information, communication, training, accountability, and the sharing of power. It also drove the challenge to misogyny, homophobia and institutionalised racism – all rife in the council structures that the Left came in to change in 1984.

Thus, with their base in autonomous social movements and their criticism of the undemocratic, hierarchical nature of the state, but, on the other hand, their belief in the importance of redistribution and improving public services, they held out the possibility of being ‘in and against the state’[6].

Many of the initiatives that Kath records from the early years of the ‘Manchester revolution’ illustrate what this meant in practice. First, local feminist, gay and other activists were joining the Labour Party in significant numbers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They reinforced an emphasis on the Left on developing alternative polices rather than just being anti-cuts, and on working closely with community and other social movements to develop these policies – especially those that led to new structures in areas such as equal opportunities, neighbourhood services, police monitoring and race relations. An extensive and participatory process was set in motion to develop a manifesto for the local elections.

Second, when the Left did finally win a majority, it deployed this collaborative approach to changing the way the council was run. Key to the new councillors’ strategy for cutting through the bureaucracy was the creation of working parties on new policy initiatives that would “enable councillors and officers to contribute as equals to the policy process”. These proved very effective, according to Kath, though coming up against impossible pressures on councillors’ time.

The concerns of a loyal critic
As Thatcher’s cuts began to undermine the goals of the new Labour group, however, more fundamental problems than councillors’ time become part of Kath’s story. By 1992, the role of the city party had declined considerably; policy working parties were defunct; the relationship with community movements had turned to one of regular protests at council committees deciding on cuts; and, in Kath’s words, “the ranks of the [Labour group] backbenchers [were] struggling disgruntledly to find out what was going on”.

The Labour group was determined at first to keep control of the process of how the council met with – and negotiated over – the government’s targets. It was also, mainly through the initiative of Graham Stringer, determined to use council powers, especially over land and property and image, to stimulate an autonomous dynamic for the city’s economic development. The assumption was that this would benefit the majority of Manchester’s citizens.

Kath writes as a loyal critic of the Labour group leadership, of which she was often part, an insider with a critical autonomy. She was part of its decision, after Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, to move away from confrontation with the government towards co-operation and negotiation and to attempt within this compromise to pursue Labour’s principles of social justice. At the same time, though, she and other councillors – especially a small band of women, but also some men – tried to continue to apply, in these constrained circumstances, the radical vision of democracy with which they set off in 1984. This shapes her insights into the process of leadership and management in the five years following the fourth Tory victory in 1992, when the party and the social and trade union movements with which it had been connected were no longer the driving force making the group leadership accountable and influencing its management of the council.

Kath’s story, as the Tory noose tightened around the neck of local government, raises two issues that reverberate today.

Conflicting meanings of efficiency
The first concerns efficiency. Here was a council leadership searching for every possible way of ensuring public money had a public benefit for Manchester citizens. But increasingly, as they made every possible saving and used up every possibility of creative accounting, cutting costs meant reducing efficiency in terms of meeting social need. This is something that needs shouting from the rooftops against the mantra originating with Thatcher, echoed by New Labour and now assumed by Cameron, that efficiency and the public sector are inherently opposed, and that only the private sector can wave the magic wand of efficiency (with efficiency understood on the narrow profit-maximising business model of cost and revenue, and subsidy or cross subsidy being seen as by definition ‘inefficient’).

Certainly the message seemed to get through to the voters of Manchester. Judging by the election results in the 1990s, they seemed to blame the government, not the council, for the cuts in services that had to be made.

The failures of the private sector when it takes over public services or utilities are well documented[7]. But most stories of local government in the 1980s and 1990s focus on the decimation of its powers. It takes an insider, such as Kath, to document what was being done, especially in services where a reforming Left had taken office, to improve services with diminishing resources rather than let citizens suffer – and vote them out as Thatcher had explicitly intended.

Different dimensions of democracy
The second issue concerns democracy. This has several dimensions, sometimes in contradiction to each other. On the one hand, there are the democratic dimensions of public administration: the ideal of managing public money to maximise public benefit and therefore the need for a different system of decision-making, accounting and measurement from one based either on maximising profit or on past practice and departmentalist interests and insufficiently scrutinised with actual social needs and demands in mind. On the other hand, there are issues of transparency and accountability to the wider public outside the council – in this case, the Labour Party, trade unions, community and other citizens’ organisations.

Kath describes in some detail the efforts of leading councillors, including herself, to get council officials to organise adequate financial and information systems to enable councillors, under severe pressure, to ensure high quality essential services. She talks about the process as like ‘pulling teeth’. But she felt that in general they were successful in achieving this internal transparency.

With regard to the openness and accountability of the Labour group, however, there seems to have been a process of reversion to type: type being a small closed group with concentrated power. The group whose power originated in the rebellion of 1984 was, on Kath’s judgement, doing a considerably better job for Mancunians than the old right-wing cabal. But her language towards the end of the book describing the nature of the power structure as it evolved in the struggles against, followed by the compromises with, the Tory government echo her language in the first chapters. It’s as if the politics of the 1984 group produced its own ‘tyranny of oligarchy’.

Kath’s insights indicate that this was not inevitable. At different times she points to modest alternative options that together could have produced a more collaborative, open and participatory culture but were, one way or another, closed. These included giving greater priority to citizens’ participation in new policy initiatives – for example, the neighbourhood services, even in a slimmed down version; maintaining a commitment, despite the tensions, to openness and collaborative work with the Labour group, the city party and social movements; taking positive action towards creating a political culture attractive to women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, activists from working class communities and others who were de facto excluded or subordinated by the conventions of traditional politics.

Whatever happened to participatory democracy?
I will conclude by returning to the initial vision of the 1984 rebellion which opens this book. It is for you the reader to draw the balance sheet, but I will end by raising a question or two about the fate of this vision in the way the erstwhile rebels led Manchester Council.

The 1984 manifesto concerned two aspects of democracy. On the one hand, it focused on making elected politicians accountable to local Labour parties, ensuring that the council was led by elected councillors rather than officers, establishing that these councillors had full control over how money was spent, and so on. Kath describes considerable progress between 1984 and 1997 towards a member led council – within the constraints set by central government. And formally the Labour Group was accountable to the Party but it was less and less of an active player.

The weakness of the Party as a source of democratic pressure on the elected leadership of the council leads us to the fate of the more distinctively innovative dimension of the vision of the rebels of 1984. Less thoroughly worked out and in greater need of learning through experiment, this was the vision of opening up the political process to civic sources of democratic power. It was the dimension covered by the idea of ‘participatory democracy’, if you like. This, it would seem, was not achieved.

It is beyond the task of this foreword to explain why. Kath implies that the Labour group leadership’s support for this dimension was not wholehearted, though there were several leading councillors and party activists who worked for it concertedly (including John Shiers, who sadly died a few months after Kath, also of cancer) – for example, through developing the neighbourhood services.

There is perhaps a connection between the underdevelopment of this participatory dimension and the tendency Kath notes towards a concentration of power in a leading group of councillors, officers and other players in the city and regional politics. Political systems based exclusively on representative democracy have an inbuilt tendency towards oligarchy, especially where the electoral system is first-past-the-post. It’s a tendency, not inevitability, but it arises from the assumption that elected representatives have a monopoly over democratic legitimacy.

Public servants, the theory goes, serve the elected politicians to carry out the will of the people. The people are passive between elections, except as supplicants with particular problems. The pull of the process is upwards, with an in-built tendency towards hierarchy, although within this the political culture can be more or less collegiate and collaborative. The vertical pull is reinforced by the fact that in reality, in a capitalist, oligarchic economy, elected politicians on their own have limited powers and tend to end up depending, either actively or passively, on powerful private interests, including media. Political parties on their own have proved to be inadequate counters to this pressure. And Manchester City Labour Party was no exception.

A variety of experiences in other UK cities and internationally indicate that only strong, autonomous and democratic social movements, including radical trade union organisations, community groups and social economy initiatives, can provide an adequate democratic counter power, opening up the political culture and ways of being political in local government. The insight in practice of the radical movements of the 1960s onwards, which has been developed by the many movements for deeper democracy active today around the environment, inequality and a reawakened feminism, was that the power to transform does not lie simply with politicians.

In Manchester, in the build up to the left winning the leadership of the Labour group, the Labour Party had links with social movements but in general such links were not as strong as in some cities. The party leadership did not give any priority to enabling and supporting the growth of a democratic and self-confident civil society. Such a process could well have been seen as producing too much uncertainty when keeping control was the overriding priority.

More democracy as bargaining power?
These reflections lead to a further question: whether the creation of more participatory forms of democracy would have made a difference to the nature of the struggle and negotiation with the government, the quality of services and the extent of social – including employment – gains in the deals done with private companies.

The question concerning relations with private business does not arise from a simply theoretical interest. Rather it comes from observing, in the local New Deal for Communities in East Manchester in the early 2000s, how the involvement of local residents in housing developments, and the community pressure stimulated by this opening up of the process, strengthened the hand of the public authority to get results of more benefit to the local community[8].

At the same time I noted Kath’s cautious scepticism about the quality of the jobs created by the private sector developments supported by the council and “whether the economic boom has really filtered down to improve the quality of life or levels of poverty amongst many Manchester residents”[9]. Would a genuinely participatory approach, underpinning an integration of social and employment goals (rather than primarily infrastructural goals) into the regeneration process, have made a difference? The council had – and used – bargaining levers in its dealings with private business through its ownership of land and property, its access to government funds, and in the market that its geo-economic position offered. In these days, when brand is an important source of value, is not public pressure and hence democracy also an (under-used) source of bargaining power? A source of bargaining power that also expands the priorities of what is demanded beyond those that the politicians would set on their own.

I’m not sure what Kath would have said in such a discussion. But there is one thing for sure: we can never move forward without an honest assessment of the past. And Kath has certainly left us with that.

Hilary Wainwright 2011


[1] Margaret Thatcher ‘The Downing Street Years’ Harper Collins 1995

[2] A gathering of the political and economic elite of the US, Europe and Japan to discuss common problems, founded and funded by David Rothschild in 1973.

[3] See Sheila Rowbotham ‘Feminism and Democracy’ in New Forms of Democracy eds David Held and Christopher Pollitt, Sage 1986.

[4] Su Maddock explores the links between gender, innovation and organisational transformation in ‘Challenging Women’ Sage 1999.

[5] By Jo Freeman, first published in ‘The Second Wave’ in 1972.

[6] ‘In and Against the State’ by the Edinburgh to London Weekend Return Group. Pluto 1980.

[7] See ‘In Place of Austerity: Reconstructing the economy, state and public services’, Dexter Whitfield, Spokesman 2011.

[8] See ‘Reclaim the State: Experiments in popular power’, Hilary Wainwright, Seagull books 2009, Chapter 6.

[9] She adds, “If there is some independent research to prove me wrong, I will happily revise my scepticism.”

First Chapter Contents List Acknowledgements

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