Power & Politics
During the 20th century London's political landscape and loyalties grew more complicated than ever before. But one trend stood out: increasing participation. London in the 20th century became more democratic and politically inclusive than it had ever been before. The 20th century was indeed 'the people's century'.
In 1900 around 700,000 Londoners were eligible to vote- all of them property-owning men aged over 21. In 1918 the vote was given to working-class men over 21 and women over 30, increasing the size of London's electorate to 2.2 million. In 1929 voting rights were extended to women aged between 21 and 30, bringing the capital's electorate to nearly 3 million. In 1969 the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 and the century ended with around 5 million Londoners eligible to cast their votes in both national and local elections. Unfortunately the century also ended with the lowest ever turn out in a London election. In the 1998 election for local councils only 34.7% of London voters actually exercised their right to vote.
The other major trend of the century was the increasing presence of the State in the daily lives of Londoners. This in turn produced more and larger units of local government. Generally, London's local authorities grew bigger in size and more complex in operation over the century as the State assumed more responsibilities than ever before for the health and welfare of its citizens.
The century began with London embarking on a new chapter of local government. The London County Council (LCC) had given London its first elected strategic body when it was created in 1889. This was followed around the turn of the century by the creation of 28 metropolitan boroughs, all intended to provide government at a more local level for London's districts. The one exception to the new system was the Corporation of London. Although effectively a local borough, the Corporation continued governing the 'square mile' of its territory in its own historic and idiosyncratic way.
The metropolitan boroughs began their work in 1902 and the two-tier system that they and the overarching LCC represented lasted for the
next 80 years. In the mid-1960s both levels were expanded to create larger units covering the whole of Greater London. The London County Council was replaced by the Greater London Council (GLC). The metropolitan boroughs were amalgamated with some of the old county and district boroughs to create 32 London boroughs. In 1986 the GLC was abolished but the century ended with the prospect of a replacement strategic body- the Greater London Assembly.
As government came to have more influence on the daily life of Londoners so political debate became part of London's life and culture. In the 1920s it was said that politics was now second only to sport in engaging the enthusiasm of the working man. This engagement was reflected in the rise of the Labour Party, whose political fortunes were transformed by the 1918 act which had given the vote to working-class men. With only 39 members of parliament before the 1918 franchise reforms, by 1929 the Labour Party had 288 in 1929.
In London, Labour established a stronghold in the capital's inner city constituencies at both national and local level. In 1907 Labour won 1 seat (out of 118) on the LCC: in 1958 it won 101 (out of 126). However the early GLC was dominated by the Conservatives who in 1967 won 82 out of the council's 100 seats.
If politics in London became more participative over the century, it also became more demonstrative. London's role as a place of protest and campaigns swelled over the century as people adopted a less deferential approach to authority and Britain's media became increasingly London-centric. In 1904 the suffragette movement moved their campaign of civil disobedience from Manchester to London knowing that it was in the capital that they would get more attention. The same held true in the 1930s when unemployed miners and shipbuilders marched from the north to London to raise awareness of their plight. Ban the Bomb demonstrations in the 1950s, Vietnam War demonstrations in the 1960s and the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s continued what had become by the end of the century a London tradition. Trafalgar Square did sterling service throughout the 20th century as the nation's most important space for political protest.
London's position as a national capital also meant it was caught up in conflicts of international power. The two world wars saw London under attack from German bombs. Violence also came as a consequence of the break up of the British Empire. The creation of the Irish Republic in 1922 brought a new form of 'the Irish problem' and Irish politics continued to affect London life throughout the century, most dramatically with the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s.
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