Tributes have poured in for ‘Red’ Ted Knight, the south London council leader who defied Thatcher and was the scourge of the tabloids but a tireless campaigner for the downtrodden and under-represented
Following the news yesterday that Ted Knight had died, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, described his old friend as “one of the finest and most courageous socialists I have known”. Knight was 86.
Knight was the former leader of Lambeth Council who was surcharged and removed from office for defying the Thatcher government’s spending cuts.
Norwood resident Knight had been politically active from his childhood through to the end – having been the co-founder and chair of the Croydon Assembly organisation, which staged regular meetings and rallies at Ruskin House over the past decade.
In 1945, Knight’s father, who was in the Royal Navy, encouraged Ted to hand out leaflets urging people to vote 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 associating with Trotskyists and organising a meeting on the abolition of the monarchy. Knight was finally readmitted in 1970. He became a councillor in Norwood in 1974 and in 1978 he became the leader of Lambeth Council.
Knight founded the weekly Labour Herald in 1981, along with his co-editors, Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council, and Matthew Warburton, the deputy leader of Lambeth Council. They played a key role in changing the Labour Party’s position to one of recognising the right of Palestinians to self-determination.
The Conservative landslide at the 1979 General Election saw the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, embark of a series of ideological confrontations against the left, including trades unions, the miners and Labour-run local councils.
It was not long before Knight, in Lambeth, clashed with Westminster. It was a battle that he would continue right through the rest of his life, including issuing a rallying call through the pages of The Guardian in 2012 to rail against the latest Tory-led government’s austerity cuts imposed on borough authorities: “We need a coalition of resistance against local council cuts.”
Thirty years earlier, when the Thatcher cabinet imposed a cap on the local rate that councils could levy in a bid to reduce the powers of Labour-held local authorities, Knight led a campaign against the policy. He and his colleagues were vilified by right-wing tabloids, who dubbed him “Red Ted”.
In 1985, Lambeth’s councillors refused to make a capped rate for the next financial year because it would have resulted in large-scale cuts to services. Later that year, the district auditor surcharged the councillors more than £125,000 – the sum alleged to have been lost by the councillors’ actions. Although the sum was raised by the Labour movement, the surcharge was upheld by the courts. The councillors, including Knight, were summarily removed from office and banned from standing again.
Knight remained active in the movement in the 21st century, organising and chairing Croydon Assembly. In February this year, he chaired a huge meeting organised in Croydon addressed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell MP. In March, he led local activists in a discussion on how to reach out to the community in Lambeth.
In his memoirs, Livingstone, who had known Knight since his own time as a councillor at Brixton Town Hall, describes to him as “impeccable haircut, immaculate clothes and class-based approach to politics”.
David White, the former secretary of Croydon Central Labour Party, who knew Knight well through his work with the Croydon Assembly, said, “He was a giant of the Labour movement nationally. I think we are very privileged that he was also active locally in Croydon, particularly in his later years through his work for the Croydon Assembly and Croydon Trades Union Council.
“Ted had a very forthright style of delivery which often put the fear of God into Tories and right-wing Labour people. Underneath it, he was very kind and gentlemanly.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, said: “I first met Ted in the 1970s when he was a determined figure in the London Labour Party and was his agent when he stood in Hornsey in 1979. 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. He had a deep knowledge of the history of the movement, going back to his childhood in the north-east. We will all miss him.”
John McDonnell MP, the shadow chancellor and another who had campaigned with Knight since the 1980s, 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. No matter what was thrown against him, he stood firm in his beliefs, engaged in Labour and trade union struggles to the end. He devoted his life to the greatest cause there is, humanity.”
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of 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.
“In recent years, Ted has been an active Unite community member, inspiring further generations to fight for social justice. 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.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service union, said: “Ted was a giant of our movement. I got to know him quite well in recent years and was constantly amazed at his drive, passion and commitment not just in the national stage but also locally where his work in the Croydon Labour and trade union movement was superb. He was knowledgeable, approachable, dependable, and an inspiration. I will miss him.”
Paul Feldman, who collaborated with Ted Knight on political campaigns and projects for more than 30 years, said: “He remained a tenacious fighter for socialist principles throughout his life, never wavering when the going got tough. Ted was never dogmatic in his views, always trying to understand how to relate to our changing world and remained a committed revolutionary in outlook. His life’s struggle are an inspiration to a new generation.”
A memorial meeting will be organised later in the year. In the meantime, an online meeting will be held shortly to allow people to pay their respects.
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