Political Croydon: The Eighties

By - Thursday 9th October, 2014

In the third instalment of his political journey through the decades, David White remembers the Croydon shaped by Thatcher, Bowness and Livingstone

Clockwise, starting top left: Bernard Weatherill, Croydon North East MP and Speaker of the House of Commons; North End prior to pedestrianisation; police and miners during the Miners’ Strike; John Moore, Croydon Central MP and one-time rumoured successor to Margaret Thatcher; the London International Financial Futures Exchange, which was deregulated in 1986; a then-hairy Ken Livingstone, Leader of the Greater London Council; Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister 1979-1990; a poster for Bill Pitt, Liberal Alliance MP for Croydon North West 1981-1983.

The 1980s. The era of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev; the Falklands War and the fall of the Berlin Wall; privatisation and council house sales; “Loadsamoney” and “no such thing as society”; the miners’ strike and the poll tax.

Politics in Croydon, as in the rest of the country, was dominated by one person: Margaret Thatcher. Like her or loathe her, she changed Britain in a way few other prime ministers have done. Locally, Croydon was still very much a Tory town in 1980s, and Thatcher had several prominent representatives on the local scene.

Foremost among these was John Moore, who was the Conservative MP for Croydon Central from 1974 to 1992. In my dealings with him, I always found him to be a courteous and helpful person – and he was willing to join in cross-party campaigns for the good of Croydon.

John Moore didn’t fit into the stuffy image of many Conservative MPs of the time

Moore brought a touch of modernity to the Tory Party. He had lived for some years in the USA, and his wife was American. He didn’t fit into the stuffy image of many Conservative MPs of the time.

Moore had a meteoric rise in Thatcher’s government, and was at one stage tipped to become a future Tory leader. He impressed Thatcher and her supporters when he was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, a role in which he steered through BT privatisation. However, he was less successful as Secretary of State for Social Services. Appointed in 1987, he now had a huge portfolio which included Health.

Moore made some comments in speeches which were controversial with other Tory MPs. Following this, and a bout of ill health in November 1987, Thatcher demoted him. His hopes of high office shattered, he carried on as an MP until 1992 and is now a life peer (Lord Moore of Lower Marsh). As the equivalent of Health Secretary, Moore held the highest ministerial post of any Croydon MP since the Second World War.

One of Thatcher’s other prominent lieutenants in Croydon was Peter Bowness (now Lord Bowness), a Croydon solicitor who had first been elected to Croydon Council in the 1960s. The Conservatives ran Croydon Council throughout the 1980s under his fairly right-wing leadership. During his time in office, North End was pedestrianised, and the Queens Gardens created – the council extended the former Town Hall Gardens.

The Croydon Liberals had a rare flash of success in 1981

Although the Tories dominated politics in Croydon at the time, there was one flash of success for the Liberal Party. In 1981 there was a by-election in Croydon North-West. The Liberals’ existing candidate was Bill Pitt, a bearded local government officer who had stood in several previous elections and been working hard in the community for a number of years.

However, Pitt had to fight hard to be the candidate in 1981. The Liberals had recently formed an alliance with the SDP (Social Democratic Party), and the SDP wanted one of their ‘stars’, such as Shirley Williams, to stand. However, Pitt prevailed and became the first MP to be elected under the SDP/Liberal Alliance banner. But his success was short-lived – Bill failed to hold the seat at the 1983 general election.

The decade also saw the election of the first Croydon MP to be Speaker of the House of Commons, namely Bernard Weatherill, who was MP for Croydon North-East from 1964 to 1992. Weatherill was Speaker from 1983 to 1992, and he managed to maintain a degree of independence from the Prime Minister, as his post required. Weatherill was widely respected as Speaker by figures from all parties, and Croydon Council’s new offices are, of course, named after him.

There was a lot of resistance to Thatcher’s policies

But Croydon politics in the 1980s weren’t all about the great and the good, and the Thatcher government didn’t always have things its own way. There was a lot of resistance to Thatcher’s policies, and there were large demonstrations against unemployment, fascism and nuclear weapons.

From 1984 to 1985, the miners fought for the survival of their industry in the Miners’ Strike. The strike came to Croydon when miners from Kent were put up at Ruskin House, the Labour Headquarters in Croydon, so that they could campaign locally and in central London.

Many Labour councils resisted Thatcher’s local government cuts. Among these was Lambeth where the Leader, Ted Knight, and his colleagues fought a long battle in defence of local services. Not unlike the position of the left today, they felt it was wrong for ordinary people to suffer cuts to their living standards when, at the same time, the rich were getting richer. Ted Knight and his colleagues were eventually surcharged for refusing to make cuts, and forced out of office.

London had to wait until 2000 for the re-establishment of devolved authority

Another council which opposed Thatcher was the Greater London Council (GLC). From 1981 to 1986 the GLC under Ken Livingstone implemented a number of progressive policies, such as ‘Fares Fair’, which saw public transport fares fall dramatically (and usage increase). Thatcher was incensed by some of the GLC’s actions, including the fact that a large billboard showing London’s rising unemployment figures was posted on County Hall, directly opposite parliament. Thatcher decided to abolish the GLC and, despite a huge amount of opposition, succeeded in doing so in 1986. London then had to wait until 2000 for the re-establishment of devolved authority, in the form of the Mayor and Greater London Authority.

At the end of the decade the Conservative government introduced the poll tax. This replaced the ‘rates’ which had been based on the notional rental value of a house. The new tax was a fixed tax per adult resident. It was enormously unpopular, and riots broke out in London and elsewhere. Ultimately these events contributed significantly to Thatcher’s downfall and, as is well known, she was effectively removed by her own party colleagues in November 1990.

An era had ended. From the point of view of those of us on the progressive wing of politics it was a bleak decade, but one which saw the spirit of resistance survive and ideas formulate which were to bear fruit in later years.

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David White

David White

David lives in Park Hill, Croydon. Until his recent retirement he was a solicitor specialising in elderly client matters. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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