George Kerevan

George Kerevan

Red Edinburgh and Municipal Radicalism Today

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Across Scotland, local governments are making cuts to services. George Kerevan provides his personal reflections on attempts by Edinburg District Council to resist austerity and marketisation in the 80s and 90s, and the lessons for today.

In May 1984, a mini revolution took place in the staid, conservative (and Conservative) capital of Scotland. The local elections that month swept from power the ruling Tories and installed the first ever majority Labour administration on Edinburgh District Council (EDC). Overnight Labour gained 9 seats on the 62-seat council, yielding an overall majority with 34 seats. I was one of the new Labour councillors. This result was a shock to the middle class residents of the New Town – not to mention the city’s business elite, which included the bosses of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland. For Edinburgh’s new governing Labour group were not at all typical of the party’s right wing Scottish establishment.

The able group leader, Alex Wood, was an ex-member of the Militant Tendency while key members of the administration (myself included) were set on following the lead of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC) and using a toehold in the state apparatus to introduce radical, pro-working class reforms in the capital. There followed a decade of struggle initiated by the new Labour administration consciously aimed at shifting popular power in the capital to working class communities; at asserting a degree of popular, socialist planning over the city economy, at using the local state to defend women’s rights, and making an intervention in international working class politics by opposing nuclear weapons and offering solidarity to the struggle for black liberation in South Africa.

Under the slogan “Improving services, Creating Jobs” the radical councillors would do more than put an illuminated red star atop the City Chambers every Christmas – though they did that and caused much of Tory Edinburgh to have a collective heart attack. Rents were frozen, a Zero Tolerance campaign was launched against male violence towards women (one that would replicated across the UK), free needles were handed out to limit the new Aids pandemic (a revolutionary move at the time), interventionist popular planning bodies were set up including a Cooperative Development Agency and an Edinburgh version of the GLC’s public enterprise board to impose democratic control of the local economy, Edinburgh was declared a nuclear free zone, and a series of new training initiatives were directed at marginalised sectors of the city’s population, including an agency to train women in the housing schemes in computer skills while simultaneously providing free child care.

EDC also drew explicitly on the work of the Italian Communist Party in using cultural interventions to reinforce working class solidarity and seize back Edinburgh from petty-bourgeois conformity. A new People’s Story museum was set up to celebrate Edinburgh’s working class and radical history. I initiated a Science Festival (the world’s first) to parallel the existing International Festival.  An Edinburgh Hogmanay event was established which became one of the biggest such gatherings anywhere.  The City Art Centre was expanded, and its exhibition policy popularised.  As a result, Edinburgh hosted everything from the very first UK exhibition of artifacts from the Xian Warriors to singer Joni Mitchell showing her paintings (I bagsied taking her to lunch at a local pub).


All this took place against a background of Thatcherite austerity and a rising tide of class struggle, as the first wave of neoliberalism began to dismantle the post-war welfare system. Thatcher came to power in 1979 committed to reducing public spending in general, and council spending in particular. Local authorities that refused to adhere to these spending limits were penalised via cuts to their central government grants, and by surcharging.

The most radical Labour councils responded by refusing to accept spending and rate controls. These included Ken Livingstone’s GLC and Militant-run Liverpool Council. In Scotland, the resistance was more muted due to the dominance of the Labour right, but both Stirling and Edinburgh took part. The rebellious councils on both sides of the border coordinated their activities with a view to forcing the Tory Government to back down. In Edinburgh we orchestrated a big public awareness campaign, including marches and rallies.  (Note this occurred simultaneously with the 1984-85 miners’ strike and was seen as a common struggle to defeat the Thatcher Government).

Ultimately the campaign was defeated. Firstly, the reformist Labour leadership under Neil Kinnock pressured councils to retreat. Second, the trades union bureaucracies argued that local government workers faced a loss of wages if the Tories cut the funding of the rebellious councils. EDC was one of the last holdouts. By 1987, with the miners also crushed, we were forced to retreat. Four councillors (led by Alex Wood) resigned their seats rather than capitulate. The rest of us decided to soldier on rather than hand over to a Tory administration – a difficult decision. Fortunately, the more progressive wing of the Labour group under Mark Lazarowicz was able to retain control. (For his pains, Lazarowicz was blocked from standing for the Scottish Parliament and later exiled to the Labour backbenches at Westminster.)


In retrospect, the most influential initiative of the 1984-96 EDC administration was the launch of the Zero Tolerance campaign against male violence to women, which had a lasting UK and international impact. The campaign was the work of the administration’s new Women’s Committee – the first of its kind in Scotland. The idea for the Zero Tolerance project came from the amazing Evelyn Gillan, a young working class and feminist activist who was fulltime campaigns officer in the Woman’s Unit we set up to support the Committee. Sadly, Evelyn died all too young in 2015, but not before spearheading the successful campaign for alcohol pricing in Scotland.

Evelyn conceived the Zero Tolerance campaign together with the documentary photographer and radical feminist Franki Raffles. What made their campaign effective was the use of huge, 48 sheet public billboards. These paired strong, positive images of women (shot by Franki) with shocking statistics about physical and sexual violence against women and children. Before long, other councils across the UK wanted to duplicate the campaign in their own local areas.  Eventually it spread to America and Australia.


There is a difference between a so-called progressive, reformist council administration and one willing to challenge the rule of the marketplace and the law of value. The radical EDC administration sought to use its modicum of control over the local economy to prioritise popular planning initiatives and use municipal land holdings to challenge free market investment flows. In this we copied work already underway at the GLC and later (in a more advanced fashion) by the Workers Party administration in Porto Alegre in Brazil in the 1990s.

The author spent eight years as convener of the EDC Economic Development Committee. During this period, we consciously subverted and circumvented Tory rules limiting capital investment. As a result, at one point, EDC’s capital programme was as great as all other district councils in Scotland put together. To evade spending restrictions, we set up a stand-alone company called by the anodyne title of Edinburgh Development and Investment (EDI).

We gave EDI a large, multi-million-pound loan which it used to purchase council land. This transaction (loan and purchase) was done simultaneously which meant the cash “lent” to EDI was purely fictitious.  The result was that EDI now owned a big land bank against which it could borrow outside the Tory financial controls. This capitalised EDI so it could go on to build factories, houses, training units and the like.

We also used the council’s cash flow as a covert spending fund. Rents received from council commercial properties were deliberately undervalued in budget projections and passed through escrow accounts before being declared formally in the council accounts. This “slush” fund was used to finance capital spending that otherwise would have fallen fowl of Tory controls. This method was used to build the massive Gyle Shopping Centre on the city’s western approaches. A later, reformist Edinburgh administration sold off the Gyle for a cool £122 million.

Our ultimate plan was to put all the revenue-earning public assets of the District and Regional councils (including Lothian Transport, the bus company) into a Common Good Fund, with the profits pooled for public enterprise. This would have safeguarded these assets from a future right-wing administration and created a political lever to direct the city economy in a socialist direction. Alas, as the class struggle diminished, the reformist elements in the local Labour Party came to dominate and these visionary plans were scrapped.

Yet we left behind a new generation of infrastructure including Edinburgh’s conference centre, some innovative housing projects designed by radical young Scottish architects, the new Traverse Theatre; and Edinburgh Park – an advanced business space that secured thousands of jobs for the city. The construction of these projects during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s created significant construction employment. I still have a press photo of myself lecturing a certain Mrs E. Windsor on socialist economics, at the opening of the Bank of Scotland computer facility at Edinburgh Park. (Incidentally, we funded the creation of the Edinburgh Science Festival by telling Bank of Scotland we would not release the land for their computer HQ unless they forked up £100,000 for the festival.)

In 2007, I tried to interest the first SNP Holyrood administration in these methods of outflanking UK Treasury financial controls. I offered to join a transition team to help explain how to go about it.  Jim Mather (soon to be Enterprise Minister and a friend) was the go-between and seemed enthusiastic.  But weeks went by with no response.  The new SNP Government was now in the hands of the civil service.  I was shunted off to an official advisory body for Scottish business at which John Swinney made fluffy speeches. I gave up in despair. 


The politics behind the radical EDC of 1984-1996 was a variation of the “red base” theory of the 1970s.  We intended to use our control of a small part of the state to intervene in ways that shifted the balance for forces in favour of the working class. We had no illusions regarding our ability to build islands of socialism inside Thatcher’s Britain. But access to a part of the state apparatus was valuable if used in solidarity with other radical councils, the trades unions and the women’s movement during periods of sharp class struggle (we had all read our Gramsci).

The exemplar of this strategy was the Italian Communist Party and in particular the PCI’s administration in Bologna – I was sent there as an emissary. The capture of the local state as a red base was also practiced in the GLC and by some of the inner London boroughs, now colonised by elements of the 1970s revolutionary left who had grown exasperated by small group politics (myself included). There were mutual visits between EDC and the GLC. In particular, we formed close links with the late Tony Banks, then head of the GLC’s culture committee. Thatcher dissolved the GLC in 1986 which only added to our political isolation in Edinburgh.

Of course, there were tensions inside the EDC group between the old Labour traditionalists and the 1968 revolutionary generation. At a group meeting I once moved to transform the serially incompetent and mismanaged Works Department into an autonomous, self-managed workers cooperative but could only muster two votes in favour. The conservative housing department steadfastly rejected my attempts to import some of the ideas pioneered in Red Bologna, which included turning long-term empty tenement properties into workshops to employ local women.

On the other hand, we had political advantages that are less available now.  A whole generation of young revolutionaries grounded in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s had by this time decided to make the “long march through the institutions” – meaning the Labour party and municipal councils. I can think of half a dozen cadres from the tiny Scottish wing of the International Marxist Group (of which I had been a member) who became Labour councillors, including Charlie Gordon who ended up leader of Glasgow City Council.

Just as important, there was also a leaven of leftist cadre among the council staff. My economic development team on EDC included a Director (Bill Ross) who had been in the Labour Party Young Socialists during its domination by the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League; a head of property who was a leading cadre in the Socialist Workers Party (Ian Wall); and a head of training projects who was a spirited Eurocommunist (Matthew Crighton). As a result, ideology usually triumphed over bureaucratic routine.

I don’t mean to over-promote the success of the Red Edinburgh experiment between 1984 and the mid-1990s.  In retrospect, we were too “commandist” and our attempts at decentralised planning, budgeting and decision-making were inadequate. On the other hand, we played a concrete role in a period of mass resistance to Thatcher.  As the tide of class struggle ebbed it was inevitable the EDC administration would find itself politically marooned – much as the Porto Alegre comrades were to experience a decade later. Yet for a period, we were able to use the council’s land bank and planning powers to develop Edinburgh in ways that were responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens rather than big Capital, thus delaying the victory of neoliberalism in the Scottish capital.  Our interventions on health and on behalf of women had a positive impact on life in Edinburgh felt to this day. And we created a line of resistance to Thatcher that destroyed Tory political hegemony in the capital. It is interesting, in this context, that many of those in the leadership of this generation of Edinburgh Labour councillors moved over to the SNP with the rise of Blairism. That included Alex Wood and myself.


The Tories abolished EDC in 1996, as part of a major local government reorganisation. Ostensibly this was to reduce bureaucracy, but it effectively eliminated political thorns in their flesh. The Scottish Labour bureaucracy cooperated, bought off by the introduction of bigger personal expenses. A new City of Edinburgh Council emerged, but effectively this was a take-over of the old District by careerist regional councillors.

After a further reorganisation in the early 2000s, the increasingly lacklustre Labour administration in Edinburgh lost power to the Lib Dems – symbolic of the transformation of the capital into a rich, middle class city dominated by academia, tourism, and banking. However, the Edinburgh Lib Dems – far to the right of their English comrades – were booted out following the great trams fiasco that went hundreds of millions over budget. Since then, Edinburgh has been in the hands of a variety of SNP-Labour coalitions, each more subservient to the property developers’ lobby than the last.

The days of a radical, People’s Edinburgh seem long forgotten except for our public art, including Eduardo Paolozz’s wonderful anti-war sculpture or the anti-apartheid piece in Festival Square depicting a mother and child in a South African ghetto. 

But the colonisation of municipal government as a focus for radical politics is being reborn across Europe, especially in France and the Spanish state. Why not in Scotland?

The next Scottish local elections are in 2022.  If there is a lesson to be learned from the EDC experiment of the 1980s it involves how to combine an assault on the local state structures with mass activity on the ground. There is already a wave of grassroots local campaigns in Scotland, aimed at opposing austerity and forcing improvements in working class living standards. For instance, there is the Living Rent movement in Scotland’s major cities, the Get Glasgow Moving campaign to municipalise local bus services, and the refugee support groups that stimulated the marvellous mass mobilisation at Kenmure Street, that forced Police Scotland to release two men detained by the Home Office for deportation. This suggests there is a popular base on which to launch an independent, class struggle united front to contest the 2022 local elections.

One major weakness of the anti-establishment left in Scotland is that it has surrendered contesting the terrain of the state to the SNP and its reformist electoralism.  As a result, Scottish left-wing politics is dominated by a “wait for the SNP to win independence” approach supplemented by the odd demonstration against this or that. But genuine leftist politics requires a permanent assault on state institutions, and the construction of a political pole independent of capital and an uncritical professional political element.

Imagine if, in each of the big Scottish cities, coalitions of existing local campaign groups came together to run candidates in the 2022 elections under the banner of, say, Glasgow Against Austerity, Edinburgh Against Evictions, etc. The aim would be to polarise the elections on genuine local working class issues, not the manifestos of the reformist parties.  Electing even a smattering of radical councillors would transform municipal politics and pave the way, perhaps, for class struggle forces winning a majority at some future election. Such redouts would be invaluable in preventing an indy Scotland under the SNP merely reproducing neoliberalism under another name. And they could provide the democratic launch pads for an entirely new society.

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