The rise and fall of Red Ted's loony lefties

LAMBETH SCANDAL: It loved confrontation and thrived on tabloid outrage. Will Bennett charts a council's turbulent times.

Will Bennett
Saturday 29 July 1995 00:02

For more than a decade the antics of Labour councillors in Lambeth in south London appalled the party's moderates and provided endless easy ammunition for the Conservatives and the media.

The "loony left" tag, although it was also applied to such other London councils as Brent and Hackney, and also to Liverpool, was always primarily associated with Lambeth. It was a label which some of the more extreme councillors seemed to relish.

Except for a few months in the early 1980s, Labour ran Lambeth from 1978 until it was defeated in last year's local elections which resulted in a hung council. The party's administration was unstable, faction-ridden and always turbulent.

Its most controversial leader was Ted Knight, inevitably dubbed "Red Ted" by the press, who was involved in repeated confrontations with the Conservative government. Lambeth council meetings were frequently long and acrimonious with Tory councillors complaining of being spat at by their Labour opponents.

Mr Knight and his colleagues were specialists at gesture politics. Lambeth became famed for its lesbian and gay committees, nuclear-free zones and red flags and the Conservative press was able to feed its readers a regular diet of outrage about it all.

Mr Knight once flew to Nicaragua, then ruled by the Sandinistas, at the ratepayers' expense to tell the bemused Latin Americans: "I bring you greetings from the people of Lambeth and solidarity with your revolution."

But already more serious concerns were arising about the management of the council particularly the lack of financial control and the inefficiency of the direct labour organisations. Inquiries revealed irregularities in major construction projects.

In 1985 Lambeth delayed setting a rate in protest at the Government's enforcement of rate capping. This cost the council pounds 127,000 in lost interest on payments and led to the district auditor surcharging Mr Knight and 30 other Labour councillors and disqualifying them from political office for five years.

But the election of mainly new Labour councillors to replace them the following year did little to move the party back into the political mainstream. The new group leader in Lambeth was Linda Bellos who described herself as a "hard-left black feminist" and "a lesbian and proud of it".

Although this stole the headlines, what was more crucial was that only a few of the new controlling Labour group had previous experience as councillors. They had to control thousands of staff, a budget of hundreds of millions of pounds and a management which was not up to the job.

Inquiries and investigations became a way of life amid the chaos and growing corruption of Lambeth. The construction services directorate and the housing maintenance programme were heavily criticised.

Labour was re-elected in 1990 but the following year open warfare broke out within the party. Joan Twelves, the leader, and 12 other councillors were suspended from the group by regional officials for advocating non- payment of the poll tax and holding a council meeting opposing the Gulf war.

The party was finally tiring of its councillors in Lambeth and so were the voters. Labour attempted to moderate its image but the Liberal Democrats reaped the benefits and last year both parties won 24 seats with the Tories winning 16.

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