Review: Red Metropolis by Owen Hatherley

Robert Maisey
4 min readMar 3, 2021


I absolutely loved this fast paced, lavishly illustrated short book. Red Metropolis is close-to-bursting with the interesting and the obscure, brought into coherence by an author who plainly has very firm views on, and a great love of, his subject area

The book begins with a brief introduction to late 19th and early 20th century municipalism, a creative blend of the technocratic and the utopian which prefigured, but wasn’t quite yet, state socialism. We learn about the way patrimonial, progressive liberal local administrations provided the early labour movement with its first blueprint for what to do with power when it began to achieve it.

This section leads us to the book’s first major set piece, a celebration of the London County Council in the time of Herbert Morrison. Morrison is often reviled on the radical left for his ruthless factionalism and strict constitutionalism, but Hatherley engages us in a spirited defence of this quintessential Labour moderate. We are made to see Morrison’s own radicalism, showing how he turned the LCC into a state within a state, and in doing so pointed confidently ahead to how Labour might behave when they finally came into national government. Morrison’s have indeed been some of the most impressive and long lasting of all Labour’s achievements. Under his watch, London Transport became the first and arguably most successful of the great nationalised industries; sturdy, habitable and aesthetic public housing was built in vast quantities; public spaces and public utilities were made more accessible to all; and free-at-the-point of use healthcare was made available to Londoners a decade before the creation fo the NHS.

Hatherley does not find much of interest to say about the government of London for several decades after Morrison’s tenure, and the book makes a great leap forward to the early 1980s, and the ascension of Ken Livingstone to the leadership of the Greater London Council, the successor of the LCC. Hatherley identifies the GLC as a project of the post-1968 ‘New Left’ and contrasts it with the technocratic statism of the LCC. We see how the GLC struggled against the double pressure of urban dissatisfaction with an unresponsive welfare state and an actively hostile central government. The book mounts a sturdy defence of Livingstone’s attempts at creating an inclusive, anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic body politic — derided as “loony leftism” at the time. However, although the GLC achieved important symbolic progress, redefining London as an inclusive, multicultural metropolis, it’s over-emphasis on devolution and direct democracy led to a program that was neither as effective nor robust as Morrison’s firm handed statism. Nevertheless, we see how, despite the enormous popularity of GLC experiment, it was deemed an unacceptable challenge to Thatcher’s project of rewriting the social contract, leading to its abolition.

The final phase of the book leads us onto the era of London’s Mayoralty, and Livingstone’s second crack at the whip. The Mayoralty had vastly reduced powers compared to the LCC or GLC, and was expected to steer the ship with no firm control on the tiller. Although Livingstone’s run as Mayor was a political success, his legacy was flimsy. A promising start expanding and modernising London Transport was met with visceral hostility from the New Labour government, who forced a disastrous attempt at privatisation on the network, leading to its quiet renationalisation by Livingstone’s successor, Boris Johnson. Although successful by the standards of other, similar neoliberal experiments, City Hall’s strategy of regulating the vast flows of finance capital pouring into London were basically ineffectual, laying the foundations for the housing crisis to come.

At this point the text makes a sharp shift of gear from a slightly polemical history book into an overtly political tract. Hatherley’s treatment of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor is too entwined with our ongoing historical moment to be read with much hindsight as is his broadly sympathetic analysis of Sadiq Khan’s tenure thus far. It’s almost as if the text bifurcates at the final moment, interweaving a fairly mournful reflection on the lost opportunities of Corbynism with a more robust set of policy prescriptions directly aimed at Mayor Khan’s hoped-for second term.

The subtext of Red Metropolis is an argument for a left movement that maintains a clear focus on capturing and effectively leveraging state power. Hatherley argues that socialism in power should act confrontationally and in its own interest, building strong foundations able to whether the storm of the inevitable counter-revolution. Although the sections on the GLC are, perhaps, the most colourful, they contain a warning: the politics of power will always triumph over the politics of good causes — so just build the damn houses!