Latham [formerly Lathan], Charles, first Baron Latham
- David Howell
Latham [formerly Lathan], Charles, first Baron Latham (1888–1970), local politician, was born on 26 December 1888 at Norwich, the eighth of ten children of George Lathan (1852–1929), a tanner, and his wife, Sarah Ann Mason (d. 1933). He subsequently changed his name to Latham, apparently to avoid confusion with his eldest brother, George Lathan (1875–1942). The latter was assistant general secretary of the Railway Clerks' Association (1912–37), Labour MP for Sheffield Park (1929–31 and 1935–42), and chairman of the Labour Party (1931–2). Charles Latham's public career was more focused on the politics and administration of London, but demonstrated a similar character—professionalism and efficiency rather than keen partisanship. He left elementary school in Norwich at the age of fourteen and worked as a clerk, first in Norwich and later in London. By 1914 he had qualified as an accountant. Active in the labour movement from 1905, he was involved in the foundation of the London Labour Party in 1914. He married, on 14 June 1913, Maya Helen (d. 1978), daughter of Louis George Allman of Hendon; they had one son and three daughters.
After commissioned service during the First World War with the Royal Sussex regiment Latham became first a manager with, and then a partner of, a firm of accountants. Active in the London Association of Accountants, he played a leading role in its development into the Association of Certified and Corporate Accountants. He served a three-year term as president of the latter.
Latham's attempts to win a parliamentary seat as a Labour candidate failed. Third places at Hendon in the general elections of 1922 and 1923 were followed in 1924 by defeat in a straight fight at Wandsworth Central. In suburban Hendon he was the sole Labour member of the urban district council from 1926 to 1931. His crucial breakthrough came in 1928, when he was elected to the London county council (LCC) as an alderman. This success reflected the strategy of the LCC Labour group leader, Herbert Morrison, who saw aldermanic vacancies as a valuable opportunity to strengthen Labour's professional expertise.
During the spring and summer of 1931 Latham became involved in the events that culminated in the collapse of the second Labour government. He was one of two Labour members of the committee on national expenditure, usually known as the May committee after its chairman, Sir George May, of the Prudential Assurance Company. Latham's Labour colleague was Arthur Pugh, the steelworkers' leader and a member of the TUC general council. A committee majority of actuaries, accountants, and bankers produced a report urging drastic economies; Latham and Pugh wrote a minority report that largely reflected the thinking of the TUC and its research department. Although they accepted the majority's contentious estimate of the budget deficit as £120 million and endorsed some economies, they considered the underlying economic difficulties not to be the result of excessive public expenditure, but of post-war deflation, the return to the gold standard, and the fall in world prices. An equitable solution should include taxation of holders of fixed-interest securities who had benefited from the fall in prices. Whereas the majority saw a potential conflict between fiscal rectitude and the outcomes of democratic politics, Latham and Pugh endorsed the redistributive policies that had emerged out of the war—'what they regard as “undesirable” we view as consistent with the right and proper course of democratic government and progress' (Command 3920 Minority Report, para. 5). The minority report presented an alternative strategy for which no parliamentary majority existed.
In the years following the collapse of the Labour government and the party's 1931 electoral disaster, Latham became a leading figure on the LCC. When the Labour Party achieved a majority on the LCC in 1934 Latham was elected for South Hackney, a position he retained until becoming an alderman again in 1946. Morrison appointed him chairman of the finance committee. His strict scrutiny of other committees' estimates earned him the title the Iron Chancellor. Credibility in this area was deemed vital given Labour's concern that electors might harbour doubts about the party's financial competence in the aftermath of the 1931 crisis. Moreover, Herbert Morrison lacked expertise in the area and relied heavily on Latham's judgements.
Beyond his formal position Latham also operated as part of the LCC Labour leadership. Apart from Morrison, the other members were Isaac Hayward, the chief whip, and Lewis Silkin, chairman of the housing committee. Morrison labelled this quartet the Presidium. They thrashed out issues in informal discussions and, having taken a decision, maintained unity before the remainder of the party group. Their lead was respected; the resulting cohesion strengthened Labour's credibility, and when the 1937 LCC election increased Labour's majority the legitimacy of this leadership was enhanced. Whatever Labour's broader electoral problems, these London victories and the socially progressive policies pursued by the LCC enhanced the party's reputation.
In May 1940, when Morrison entered Churchill's coalition government, Latham was his predictable successor to lead the LCC. Initially he found Morrison a hard act to follow; his predecessor's political stratagems had been flavoured with geniality, and Latham could seem aloof. However his industry and thoroughness established his position, and for those who penetrated his reserve, there was warmth and generosity.
The effectiveness of the civil defence services owed much to Latham's energy and to his successful co-operation with Sir Ernest Gowers, regional commissioner of the London Civil Defence Region. A consummate professional, Latham embodied the Morrisonian respect for the LCC's senior officers, insisting that they should give advice to politicians without concern for its political convenience. The LCC was influenced by the debates over post-war reconstruction. Latham's leadership saw the publication of the County of London Plan in 1943 and the Greater London plan in the following year. Yet the LCC leadership, including Latham, were cautious about institutional reform; the reconstruction vision narrowed, and in several respects the LCC responses to post-war problems showed continuities with the successful political initiatives of the late 1930s. Latham epitomized this continuity; he was the skilled administrator implementing a political agenda that in content and style owed much to his more creative predecessor.
Latham's peerage, granted in January 1942, allowed him to strengthen the limited Labour presence in the House of Lords, but in 1947 he left the LCC and became an apolitical public servant. He had been a member of the London Passenger Transport Board—essentially a Morrisonian conception—since 1935. With the nationalization of the railways and of much road transport, the new London transport executive (LTE) came under the aegis of the British Transport Commission; Latham became the LTE's first chairman. The context was difficult. The new institutional structure reduced the autonomy for London Transport, and funds for capital investment were limited. Passenger usage peaked in 1948. Fare increases in the light of increasing costs were inevitably controversial. On a more nostalgic note Latham headed the reception committee that greeted the last London tram on completion of its final journey in July 1952.
Latham left the chairmanship of the LTE at the end of his first term of office in 1953 and returned to his accountancy practice. Some distance had developed between him and the Conservative government. The Conservative minister of transport, Alan Lennox-Boyd, had responded to back-bench criticism of London Transport by establishing a committee of inquiry under the industrialist Sir Paul Chambers. The subsequent report acknowledged that London Transport had been conducted with efficiency and economy. However, in some quarters there was perhaps a feeling that Latham's chairmanship, whatever its administrative qualities, had lacked 'panache' (Elliot, 87).
Latham later joined the LCC housing committee (1957) as a co-opted member and became a member of the Metropolitan Water Board. His managerial interests were evident from 1945 in his work as a member of the Standing Advisory Committee on the Pay of the Higher Civil Service (1956–67), and of the Council of Europe (1960–62). As a lord lieutenant of Middlesex from 1945 to 1956 he enjoyed the ceremonial. Very much an 'insider' in London politics, he took part in 1963 in a last significant battle, with his old ally now Lord Morrison of Lambeth, to oppose the LCC's replacement by the Greater London council.
Latham's marriage was dissolved in 1957. In March 1957 he married Sylvia May (d. 1985), widow of Alexander Kennard; she was the daughter of Alexander Newmark of London. Latham died in the Middlesex Hospital, London, on 31 March 1970.
- The Times (2 April 1970)
- The Times (17 April 1970)
- The Labour who's who (1927)
- ‘Report of the committee appointed by HM treasury’, Parl. papers (1930–31), vol. 16, Cmd 3920 [national expenditure]
- P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (1992)
- The Times (1 Aug 1931) [for material from the Command 3920 minority report]
- K. Young and P. L. Garside, Metropolitan London: politics and urban change, 1837–1981 (1982)
- Railway Gazette (1947–53) [on Latham's period at London Transport (incl. 22/29 Aug 1947: appointment; 16 Jan 1948: first press conference; 20–27 Feb 1950: on financial issues; 11 July 1952 on last London tram; 27 Feb 1953 on decision to leave at end of term of office)]
- J. Elliot, On and off the rails (1982)
- Burke, Peerage (2000)
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1970)
- LMA, corresp., diaries, and papers
- BFINA, documentary footage
- BFINA, news footage
- W. Stoneman, photograph, 1943, NPG
- H. Coster, photographs, NPG
Wealth at Death
£19,584: probate, 16 Oct 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales