The history of London Government is – like the city itself – a complex one. For more than a century Governments and commissions have explored, altered and abolished the structures of the capital’s administration.
This article sets out the key events in the history of London Government starting with the establishment of the London County Council in 1889 and ending with the first elections for the Greater London Authority in 2000.
The London County Council
London’s first government was a directly-elected authority called the London County Council (LCC). It was set up in 1889 by the Conservatives following the successful passage of the 1888 Local Government Act.
There were 188 directly elected members of the LCC which exercised complete control over public services in the area which today forms inner-London. The Council’s powers were reduced in 1899 following the creation of 28 borough councils.
From 1906 the LCC was based in County Hall on the South Bank of the River Thames. A brief history of the building can also be found on our site.
Greater London Council
As she had since the Romans first settled on the banks of the Thames, London continued to grow in geographical size and population. Responding to theses changes the Government of Harold Macmillan appointed a Royal Commission in 1957 to investigate and make recommendations on the future of London government.
The recommendation of the Commission was to create a new metropolitan authority to oversee planning, traffic management and road building. Five years later plans were unveiled for a successor to the London County Council – the Greater London Council (GLC).
At the same time 32 London Boroughs were created to replace the 28 which had existed under the LCC. The original 28 were merged to form 12 boroughs and a further 20 were added to form the area now referred to as ‘outer London’.
The first elections for the GLC were held on 9 April 1964 and saw the Labour Party take control having won 64 seats. Following elections produced a series of Labour and Conservative majorities.
The 1981 election saw Labour regain control and the arrival of Ken Livingstone, a left wing member of the Labour group. Livingstone quickly deposed the Labour group leader Andrew McIntosh and became GLC Leader. Livingstone’s policies of equality and equal access combined with his no-nonsense approach led to many in the media portraying both the GLC and Livingstone as the epitome of the “loony left”.
Margaret Thatcher, apparently seeing the GLC as a challenge to the authority of Central Government brought forward plans in March 1984 to scrap the GLC elections scheduled for May the following year. The GLC retaliated with a public relations offensive centered around the slogan “say no to no say”.
Although the bill was dropped following a defeat in the House of Lords, the government published a new bill in November 1984. The elections due in 1985 were suspended to avoid a de facto referendum on the Council’s fate.
In March 1986 the GLC was finally abolished bringing to an end almost 100 years of London Government.
Following abolition the powers of the GLC were dispersed to other bodies including unelected quango the London Residuary Body and local Boroughs.
London Transport was taken over by Central Government who then sold off bus routes to private bidders making the body more of a regulator than service provider.
Greater London Authority
After eighteen years out of office the Labour Party won the 1997 General Election with manifesto commitments to offer referendums on devolving power to Wales, Scotland and London.
Tony Blair, Labour Leader and Prime Minister was keen to avoid party members from choosing Ken Livingstone as the party candidate for Mayor. In a move widely decried as vote rigging a selection system was used which saw votes of Labour MPs carry more weight than those of ordinary party members.
Health Secretary Frank Dobson had been persuaded to stand against Livingstone and, under the derided selection system, won the nomination. Following weeks of speculation Livingstone finally announced that he would stand as an Independent candidate.
This prompted the Labour Party National Executive to suspend Livingstone’s membership of the party.
May 2000 saw a bitterly fought campaign with Livingstone and an increasingly unconvincing Dobson battle against the Conservative Steve Norris and Liberal Democrat candiate Susan Kramer. Norris had replaced the Tory Peer Lord Archer who was forced to resign as candidate when accused of lying in a previous court case.
A broad coalition of Londoners, including many LibDem and Tory supporters, elected Ken Livingstone as the first directly elected Mayor of London. Dobson narrowly avoided trailing fourth behind the previously unknown Kramer.
The same election saw Labour and Tories each win nine seats on the London Assembly. The LibDems and Greens both won seats under the proportional ‘top-up’ system.
In July 2000 the new Mayor and Assembly took up their powers, initially based at Romney House. Labour and the LibDems entered a partnership which saw them dominate the first term of the Assembly.
After 14 years Londoners once again had their own government and the capital a directly elected figure to speak for it.
Two years later the GLA moved into City Hall, located on the South side of the River Thames in the Parliamentary constituency of North Southwark and Bermondsey.