The Outlook for London

New Statesman (1996), April 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Outlook for London


R.A.B.

MUNICIPAL Reform has won for its cause a third successive victory in London; this is the bald and obvious result of the recent County Council election. But what, measured in the actual effect on the good or bad government of the Metropolis, will be the consequences of this triumph? Forces of restraint will tend to check the free play of that passion for action and development which is now the dominant characteristic of the Progressive Party. Six years of opposition have been good for the Progressives. When, in the spring of 1907, they suffered defeat, they had become barren of ideas, and, worse still, emptied of any desire to do more than live idly on the record of past achievements. But six years of a not unsuccessful struggle to make other people do things have created, if not new ideas, at any rate a consciousness of their need and an altogether unfettered willingness to venture on fresh undertakings. Victory at the recent elections would have suddenly released an amazing store of administrative energy; de feat entails a certain measure of slow discharge. To this extent London will suffer a clear loss, whose magnitude cannot easily be overestimated.

On the other hand, we need fear no general reaction; progress will continue. Public opinion drives to action; there is no danger of standing still. The vague and widespread discontent with the anomalies of modern society, the more definite and constructive belief in the possibility of setting up and maintaining for all a minimum standard of decent existence: these are influences from which no Party can keep itself free. The history of London government during the last six years offers repeated examples of the steady yield of Municipal Reform to the pressure of those forces which drive to action. At the recent election we find the official leaflets of that Party making much boast of the number of necessitous children fed, the number of sick children medically treated, the number of municipal houses built and the number of miles of municipal tramways electrified. It is not surprising that, with such leaflets before them, The Spectator pathetically complained, that the Municipal Reformers were striving to outbid the Progressives at their own game. As a matter of fact there is no question of the game of this or that Party; no Party can live on a policy of administrative nihilism. Behind all parties lies a power that is above parties, a power that draws its strength from the unrest of to-day, and makes constructive programmes of a kind essential to existence.

During the next three years the work of the Council will develop; the Progressive minority, with the desire of the day for action behind it, will be able to secure this result. The real distinction between Progressives and Municipal Reformers must be sought in the fact that the former do things because they like them, the latter because other people like them, and will have it so. We may rest confident, therefore, that things will be done. They will be done slowly, more or less inefficiently, but they will be done.

This drive to action is more insistent in certain directions. By observing where the pressure is likely to be strongest, it is possible to forecast roughly the general drift of events. The question of the minimum wage will come to the front. The Progressives are advocating a minimum wage of 30s. for all the Council's adult male employees. The proposal involves the insertion of such a minimum in all contracts, with the additional proviso that the contractor must pay such a rate as a regular practice, and not merely to the men while employed on Council jobs. If adopted, the proposal would go far to establish over large fields of labour in London a minimum wage. …

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