London’s secrets

Contrary to the conscience-salving beliefs of the middle-stratum public, the lesser known areas of the city are not only inhabited by disreputable or dangerous elements of the working class, and the ‘respectable’ workers had not been able to escape to the suburbs. All strata of the working class were forced to live in the central-area slums.

These facts were brought home by the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in 1984-5. In the words of Anthony Wohl, the Commission “brought to light for the first time for the general public the extent of one-roomed living…. [It publicised the fact that] the miserable and dangerous sanitary condition of working-class tenements was not confined to the homes of the casually employed or poorer type of labourer, but applied also to the dwellings of thousands of skilled artisans, who, despite regular employment, sober habits and adherence to the precepts of Smilesian self-help, were forced by the housing shortage to live, more often than not, in just one room in wretchedly unsanitary surroundings.”

Though the wages of skilled workers rose steadily, their standard of living declined. More importantly, the progressively intensified residential integration of all strata of the working class contradicted the social aspirations and expectations of the ‘labour aristocracy’ which were generated and largely fulfilled in the workplace.

Their desire for separate neighbourhoods close to their workplaces within the central area or, at the minimum, for status differentials between themselves and the remainder of the working class (for example, two rooms instead of one, a home of their own, higher quality housing, greater security of tenure) were generally not fulfilled. Capitalist society had not accorded them the recognition and respect which they felt was due; their dreams had been shattered. The everyday experiences of members ofthe ‘labour aristocracy’ in their residential areas were out of phase with those of their workplaces. This contradiction had been growing more apparent and widespread since the 1960’s. The demolition of working-class housing during the 1970’s, for street improvement and under the Torrens and Cross Acts, had exacerbated the already serious situation. But the mere lack of realization of some of the artisans’ and skilled workers’ aspirations could not, in and of itself, have promoted a crisis.

Similar frustrations were continually experienced by the working class. What transformed the ‘labour aristocracy’s’ housing problem into a housing crisis was the fact that it became a concrete symbol of the broader social crisis which beset capitalist and middle-stratum London in the 1980’s Under-employment and unemployment had become endemic conditions of the inner-London labour market due to the structural decline of many central industries, outlined in Chapter 1. But the severe cyclical depression of 1984-7, occurring in the middle of the so-called ‘great depression’ of the late 19th century and affecting a much wider range of occupations than pre- 14] vious trade slumps, intensified working-class hardship to chronic proportions. As a result, members of the working class, especially the skilled stratum, began to loose faith in their automatic advancement under British capitalism and became less inclined to accept their fate passively.

London’s dominant class had been alarmed by the brief period of working-class unrest in connection with franchise reform during the mid1960’s. However, due to the absence of a unifying ideology among the working class, the challenge was not serious and the demonstrations petered out after the passage of the Second Reform Bill in 1967. In the words of Gareth Stedman Jones: “Parliament hastened to pass a sweeping Reform Bill which would forestall the dangers of an incipient alliance between the casual ‘residuum’ and the ‘respectable working class.’ The political crisis quickly passed and wealthy London as a whole was not slow to regain self-confidence.” Though the Trade Union Congtess was formed during the 1970’s in an attempt to unite the working class, the decade was essentially calm, and wealthy London remained confident. But the political complexion of the city changed markedly in the 1980’s; indeed London became the national focus of the resurgence of workingclass protest which was at the heart of this transformation.

The institutionalization of universal manhood suffrage in 1984 gave the working class increased political leverage on the existing parties who were anxious to capture the working-class vote. In this context, the reappearance of Socialism and various brands of ‘collectivism,’ which served to unite the working class behind demands for fundamental structural changes in the economy and in opposition to the dominant ideology was particulary worrisome. The socialist movement began in the East End and was most potent from 1986-8. During these years, the resoluteness and militancy of the working class strikes and demonstrations soon exposed the real extent of propertied London’s fears of this new force. The socialist-led strikes of the Bryant and May Match factory workers, the gas-workers and the dockers won important victories for the working class in general and, possibly of greater importance, they showed that the thousands of unskilled workers were no longer unorganizable. These events prompted Engels to write in 1992 that he was “glad and proud” to have lived to see the revival of Socialism in the East End, a place for which he had previously held only.despair: “That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the ‘New Unionism,’ that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of ‘unskilled’ workers.” He stressed that the most important feature of these new unions was their revolutionary character. Unlike the old unions of the skilled workers, they were not interested in getting a better deal for their members within capitalist society; rather, they were after structural changes towards some form of Socialism and, as such, formed the avante garde of the labour movement.

The riots in Trafalgar Square in 1986 and 1987 displayed the vehemence of the animosities between the working class and the propertied and privileged people of London and the extent of the latter group’s fears. Much of the violence of these years came from the over-reaction of the Establishment to these mass demonstrations. Finally, the efforts of social reformers to paint a less sensational picture of the East End, as a mean and monotonous environment rather than a hot-bed of poverty, vice and violence, were destroyed in 1988 when the widespread publicity which was accorded the savage murders of five prostitutes in Whitechapel by ‘Jack the Ripper’ abruptly “thrust into the public mind an image of East London as somewhere violent [91 and outcast, rather than monotonous and outcast.”

What made matters infinitely more serious for the dominant class was the spatial separation of social classes and the consequent erosion of traditional methods of social control. It was during this decade that the overcrowded and haphazardly-planned East End and the spacious and orderly West End, began to crystallize as images of the poverty and powerlessness of the urban working class in opposition to the wealth and dominance of the ruling class. As P. J. Keating has put it: “By the mid-eighties the East End of London had become as potent a symbol of urban poverty (the natural, virtually inevitable point of reference for anyone wishing to place the urban working classes) as Manchester had been of industrial conditions in the 1940’s ….Gone [was] the idea that the East End was merely one slum area among many; it [was] now regarded….as a complete city in its own right; a city of poverty and meanness in the east, set against a city of wealth and culture in the west….The east-west contrast (two classes facing each other, en masse, across the capital city of the Empire) reflected all of these attitudes, though also much more besides.” Thus, while the East End and the West End had separate and opposite identities, they were no longer seen as two separate entities; they were parts of a whole, and the degradation of the one part came to be seen in the public consciousness as both the cause and effect of the prosperity of the other Ill] part. In the words of Lord Salisbury: “The housing of the poor in our great towns, especially in London, is a much more difficult and much more urgent question, for the increase of prosperity tends rather to aggravate the existing evil than to lighten it. It is, in fact, directly caused by our prosperity.”

Thus, the class boundaries of capitalist society had become geographical boundaries, expressed in terms of a whole range of social and spatial differences between the two major parts of the whole. As William Glazier, an artisan put it: “the opulance and luxury of one section of the community has been built upon the moral and social ruins of the other.” The noman’s land of commercial, governmental and service activities which formed a gulf between the East End and the West End came to epitomize the gulf between labour and capital in economy and society.


April 27, 2018

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