Ted Knight, former leader of Lambeth Council, dies aged 86
by Paul Feldman and John McDonnell
Ted Knight, the former leader of Lambeth Council who was surcharged and removed from office for defying the Thatcher government’s spending cuts, has died in London at the age of 86.
Ted Knight was politically active for nearly 75 years. In 1945, his father, who was in the navy, encouraged Ted to hand out leaflets urging people to vote Labour at the post-war general election. He joined the Labour Party League of Youth in 1949.
Expelled from the party in 1954 for associating with Trotskyists then active in Labour and organising a meeting on the abolition of the monarchy, Ted Knight was finally readmitted in 1970. He became a councillor in Norwood in 1974 and in 1978 leader of Lambeth Council. In 1979, he stood as Labour candidate for Hornsey at the general election.
Ted 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, 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.
When the Thatcher cabinet imposed a cap on the local rate that councils could levy, in a bid to reduce local government power, Ted Knight led a campaign against the policy. In 1985, Lambeth 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 over £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. Councillors were summarily removed from office and banned from standing again.
Ted 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.
Jeremy Corbyn, 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, 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, general secretary, Unite the union, 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 over a 35-year period, 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 struggles 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.