David Boothroyd: Herbert Morrison’s ‘famous’ housing quote is a total phoney

David Boothroyd: Herbert Morrison’s ‘famous’ housing quote is a total phoney

Whenever there’s a political discussion about housing in London someone usually claims that Herbert Morrison, Labour leader of the London County Council from 1934 until 1940, promised to “build the Tories out of London”. It’s one of the most famous quotes attributed to him – which is odd, because it is a total phoney.

It became cited so often that Bernard Donoughue and George Jones added a mention of it in the 2001 edition of their biography of Morrison, first published in 1973, stating that “Morrison never said or wrote ‘We’ll build the Tories out of London’. If anyone can find an authoritative source that proves otherwise, we offer a prize of a free lunch with us”. The prize remains unclaimed.

In my experience people who say things are alive when they say them. No such remark from Morrison – or anyone else – can be found in print during his lifetime. Its earliest appearance came in a book by Ken Young, a distinguished historian of London Conservatism, and John Kramer, published in 1978. It quoted Horace Cutler, then Conservative housing chairman on the Greater London Council (GLC), which succeeded the LCC, accusing Morrison in 1969 of building council homes for political advantage. In a footnote the authors said the remark was frequently mentioned in London Conservative circles but confirmed even then that George Jones had been “unable to locate any hard evidence for this assertion”.

Had Morrison said or written this, or something similar, there would be hard evidence. Throughout his time in London politics one of the main aims of the (Conservative) London Municipal Society‘s monthly newsletter The Ratepayer was sourcing embarrassing and politically contentious remarks by Labour politicians. The quote appears nowhere in its pages. They would not have missed it.

Yet soon after Young and Kramer noted the frequent airing of the alleged Morrison quote it began popping up everywhere as though uncontested. Indeed, it became “famous”: Conservative GLC member George Tremlett wrote in 1979 that it was “Herbert Morrison’s famous phrase”, and when it appeared in a 1981 academic journal article by Patrick Dunleavy and Hugh Ward it was “Herbert Morrison’s famous promise”. As if asserting its fame removes any need to check its accuracy! Sadly, many politicians as well as academics, some on the left, have been duped.

There is another level on which the quote is bogus. If it is accepted that new council tenants are more likely than not to vote Labour, a Labour-run LCC intending a house-building programme for electoral advantage would have built in the most marginal areas. But on taking over the LCC Morrison continued a major building programme he had inherited. The biggest new housing scheme he initiated in London was the Kingsmead Estate in Hackney, which was located in a seat already safely Labour.

I write “in London” because Morrison’s LCC pushed ahead with extensive development outside its boundaries. It was already building St Helier estate in Morden, which was at that time in Surrey, and starting to build at Mottingham in Kent. A 1935 Morrison pamphlet noted new sites being acquired at Harrow, Kenton, Charlton, Chingford, and Hanwell – all outside the County of London at that time.

In his autobiography, Morrison talks briefly about the electoral effects of housing schemes, noting that he reinstated building the Oaklands Estate in Clapham after “the former Tory majority” had given way to local party pressure “that the political balance of the area would be upset by more working-class people going there”, but here he was only building on a site identified by his predecessors.

Meanwhile the LCC hoped to move 100,000 people out of slums. Far from “building the Tories out”, working class voters were being cleared out of London altogether, something Morrison welcomed: having done agricultural work in Letchworth as a Great War pacifist he was a firm supporter of garden cities. His political opponents objected: in 1939 an opposition member complained “that nearly half the houses and flats erected by the Council were built outside London, and therefore were not within a reasonable distance of the tenants’ work” (Councillor Frank Rye quoted in The Ratepayer and London Municipal Notes No. 159 (July 1939).

In 1940 Morrison moved from London to national politics. His long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to secure the leadership of his party ended in 1955 and he died ten years later.

Why did his bogus quote become so “famous” long after Morrison had any involvement in housebuilding? I think it’s no coincidence that it took off with Cutler, who went on to become GLC leader in 1977.

Housing policy is increasingly politically contentious, and Morrison’s fictitious quote is still readily deployed to defend Tories accused of electoral motivations for housing policy, including council house sales, stopping councils building homes, and was even used to justify the outright illegal “designated sales” policy of the Shirley Porter-led Westminster Council in the 1980s. Conservatives should be aware that they are using a quote they manufactured.

Of course, Morrison – and his successors – intended building council homes to win votes for Labour: people saved from slums and rehoused in good quality homes at social rents appreciate the help. Doing things people like is legitimate politics.

But Morrison never said his electoral strategy was to “build the Tories out of London”. It wasn’t his policy, and a quote falsely attributed to him cannot justify retaliation against families who need the kind of housing he built today.

David Boothroyd is Westminster Council’s cabinet member for finance and council reform and knows a lot about London’s political history. Follow David on Twitter.

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