South London Memories: Ted Knight, divisive figure and political activist in the Labour Movement

Ted Knight, who died on March 29 aged 86, was a divisive figure even in the Labour movement.

He led Lambeth council from 1978 to 1985 and spearheaded its defiance of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had attempted to “cap” local government spending.

He refused and persuaded his 31 Labour colleagues to do so. Ultimately, they all ended up being disqualified from
elected public office for the rest of their lives.

John McDonnell, ex-Shadow Chancellor, described his old friend last week as “one of the finest and most courageous socialists I have known”.

Norwood resident Mr Knight had been politically active from his childhood in the North-East.

Ted Knight

His father, who was in the Royal Navy, encouraged Ted to hand out leaflets for Clement Attlee’s Labour Party at the post-war General Election. Knight joined the Labour Party League of Youth in 1949.

He was expelled from the party in 1954 for being a member of the Socialist Labour League, which associated with Trotskyists and organising a meeting on the abolition of the monarchy.

He was finally re-admitted in 1970 and told the admissions panel he was
a Marxist.

And he was soon secretary of Lewisham Trades Council. He became a councillor in Norwood in 1974 and by 1978 was the leader of Lambeth council.

Mr Knight quit his job as a contracts manager of a cleaning firm to work at the council full-time.

He led the council on a £60 a week – the allowance for attending committee meetings – and drove a 12-year-old Rover car.

He said: “When you are in control of a £150million budget it is nonsense to suggest that you can do it in your spare time.”

Knight founded the weekly Labour Herald in 1981, along with Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council, and Matthew Warburton, the deputy leader of Lambeth.

In his memoirs, Mr Livingstone said Knight had “an impeccable haircut, immaculate clothes and class-based approach to politics”.

The Conservative landslide at the 1979 General Election meant both sides took up entrenched positions – but Thatcher had the power to impose the law.

In 1984, she decided to “cap” local government spending through the Rates Act. Scores of Labour councils initially resisted but in the end only Liverpool, led by the notorious Derek Hatton, and Lambeth stood their ground.

Pictures of Ted Knight’s political career

Mr Knight – dubbed “Red Ted” by Thatcher’s supporters in the national press – refused to abide by the capped rate in 1985, because it would have meant massive cuts to services.

The district auditor notified him and the 31 others that he intended to fine them £125,000 for the debts run up when they refused to set a legal rate.

Mr Knight said: “We intend to fight. We won’t concede. We won’t because we cannot concede if we are really representatives of working class people in this area.”

In the end, the money was raised by Labour party members.

The Department of the Environment, which funded up to 75 per cent of local government spending at the time, in the end found the money to sustain Lambeth spending at its existing levels for a year.

But many of his party colleagues complained that his activities as Lambeth leader divided the party, made it unelectable and paved the way for Conservative dominance for the next 11 years.

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was his agent when he stood in Hornsey in 1979. He said last week: “We were and remained very different characters. But it never stopped us from working together across London.

“His leadership of Lambeth council was legendary. He stood up to the Thatcher Government and improved public services to meet the needs of working people. The establishment made him pay a huge price by trying to bankrupt him. But he was not deterred by this and spent his life campaigning for socialism.”

Mr McDonnell said: “Ted Knight was one of the finest and most courageous socialists I have known. He was indefatigable in his campaign for a society based upon equality, social justice and solidarity.

Pictures of Ted Knight’s political career

“No matter what was thrown against him, he stood firm in his beliefs.

“He devoted his life to the greatest cause there is, humanity.”

Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the union Unite, said: “Ted was a true spirit and a fierce fighter for his class.
“I have been proud to know Ted for many years, and to have been inspired by his leadership and socialist convictions.

“Ted will be much missed but in offering our sincere condolences to his family and friends on behalf of Unite, I hope the admiration and respect so many have for Ted will be of comfort. Goodbye my friend.”

Ed Hall, from Blackheath and former secretary of Lambeth Unison, said: “At his peak, he could come across as haughty, even dictatorial. “But I personally think he was astonishingly selfless and brave.

“It was obvious his career would be destroyed by his rebellion in a way which Margaret Hodge and Ken Livingstone would never have been able to stomach.

But it did not seem to bother Ted that he would be in the shadows.

“I was always astounded he managed to persuade 31 other Labour colleagues to follow him when the same fate awaited them. Where some politicians are looking for advancement, he did the opposite.

“He helped keep youth clubs and libraries going and supported the gay and feminist movements when they were unfashionable.

“And I cannot think of anyone like him who could turn around a cold community hall meeting of hostile people.”

Mr Knight was also co-founder and chairman of the Croydon Assembly organisation, which staged regular meetings and rallies at Ruskin House over the past decade.

He also became chairman of Gipsy Hill Labour Party branch in 2016.

A memorial meeting will be organised later in the year.

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