Municipal socialism has a long history in Britain dating back to the 1890s and assuming especial importance at different periods, particularly after the two world wars. Frederick Engels was one of its early proponents, as were also John Burns and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and it is exemplified in the ... (Show more)
Municipal socialism has a long history in Britain dating back to the 1890s and assuming especial importance at different periods, particularly after the two world wars. Frederick Engels was one of its early proponents, as were also John Burns and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and it is exemplified in the emergence and subsequent establishment all over the country of local authority direct labour organisations, or DLOs. Thus, whilst the socialisation of production in much of Europe was promoted through syndicalism, in Britain it was also accomplished through the setting up of DLOs.
The paper begins with an account of the origins of the DLOs in the 1890s in London, beginning with the first, set up by the London County Council (LCC) in response to the failure of private contractors to provide an adequate building service, to achieve better employment and working conditions for building workers, and fulfil the terms and conditions of the Housing of the Working Classes Act. Battersea followed the LCC’s lead in 1894, undertaking all its own building work, and West Ham in 1896, to be followed by other local authorities in London and throughout Britain. The history of council housing and local authority public works has since then been entwined with the role of the DLOs, with the departments gaining a new impetus subsequent to the first world war, when seventy new DLOs were set up, and again after the second world war, when their numbers doubled. This contrasts with, for example, Germany after the first world war, where, Bauhütte or building guilds were set up by the construction unions. By the end of the 1960s DLOs employed over 200,000 building workers, with those in Manchester, the Greater London Council, and Glasgow alone each employing 5,000.
Not only did the DLOs have good trade union negotiated employment and working conditions and construct and maintain good quality buildings, they also played a critical role in training for the building industry, introduced notable innovations in building methods, and pioneered in employing women and those from ethnic minority groups. Indeed their very success provoked serious attacks from the private building sector and from a succession of Conservative governments, contributing to their decline under Thatcher.
Using documentary, oral and visual evidence, the paper draws out the significance of DLOs to the construction industry and to social housing throughout the twentieth century, analyses the reasons behind their chequered history and shows their importance to the development of labour in Britain. Above all, it addresses the question of why this form of municipal socialism has been so distinct to Britain in contrast to Germany. (Show less)