Last night’s meeting of Lambeth’s Cabinet was a difficult experience, as I hope I conveyed in my tweets sent from Room 8, Lambeth Town Hall. This is my commentary on the meeting as I saw it.
As Cabinet met to reluctantly agree the massive cuts which have been handed down by the Tory Lib Dem government to Lambeth – totalling around £90 million – residents protested in large numbers inside and outside the building.
Police and security guards were posted in various places around the Town Hall to keep order. I was asked for my ID as I came through the main entrance. Inside Room 8, it was hard to find a seat, but I eventually spotted one and settled down as the faux Big Ben chimes of the Town Hall clock struck seven.
The meeting was called to order by the Leader of the Council, Steve Reed, who explained that Cabinet members would speak first, in turn, setting out the context of the cuts in their individual areas, and then the agenda items would be taken all together for comments from residents.
This approach, as I said to Steve afterwards, could have been satisfactory if the first part of the meeting hadn’t taken 35 minutes, leaving the audience to grow restless and frustrated and the heckles to increase in frequency. By the time it was the turn of residents and other representatives to speak, people had heard more than enough of the polite political manager-speak and were eager to lay into any and all politicians, Labour, Lib Dem or Tory. Incidentally, Steve Reed has also blogged thoughts about the meeting here.
First to speak from the residents were children who use adventure playgrounds asking for them not to be closed. They were assured that adventure playgrounds would not be closing. (Some calls of ‘What about libraries?’ from the floor, applause).
Then tenants’ representatives. The Chair of Lambeth Tenants’ Council, Rita Fitzgerald, gave a thoughtful speech, welcomed the freeze in service charges and pointed out ‘the council does listen’, thanking Cllr Lib Peck (Housing) for the time and effort she puts in. Then Jean Kerrigan urged Cabinet not to ‘roll over’ but to stand up to the Tory Lib Dem government. ‘Stand up to the Government,’ she said. ‘They’re Tories, of course they’re draconian.’ Applause.
Next up, the borough’s union leaders, Unison’s Jon Rogers and the GMB’s Bill Modlock, to oppose all job cuts. Around a thousand jobs are at stake – a quarter of the council’s workforce face redundancy in the coming years. Modlock’s speech was measured and sympathetic to the difficulties the council faces, which he acknowledged were not of its making. But he warned Cabinet ‘Don’t ignore the people’ and to have a genuine dialogue.
Rogers of Unison on the other hand, was more for laying into Labour councillors, which always pleases the tankies among the audience but doesn’t make for constructive debate. He went as far as comparing Labour Lambeth to a Vichy regime, a puppet for Tory Lib Dem cuts. As I commented at the time, bollocks. Rogers finished to applause, after which Steve Reed pointed out that his suggestion of raiding the £30m reserves (the emergency pot which the District Auditor requires us to maintain) would bankrupt the council, and was not enough anyway to stave off £90m cuts. Bankrupting Lambeth Council had been tried before, Steve said, in the 1980s and failed. (It was also tried by the Lib Dems in 2002-2006, though more by incompetence than design, leaving Labour to inherit a borough with only £500k in reserves, enough to keep the council going for a few days in an emergency).
Then the NUT reps, Sara Tomlinson and Ray Sirotkin, were up to speak. As they tend to condemn everything Labour Lambeth has tried to do in education (building schools – wrong schools, raising standards – wrong standards, etc etc) I doubt anyone was expecting much support. They spoke angrily in defence of schools (even the wrong ones) and libraries. Fair enough, though schools are probably the best protected service we run, despite the Tory Lib Dem axe falling on Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme – which the NUT used to regard as a capitalist outrage anyway). Tomlinson told the Cabinet members they didn’t look angry enough. Applause. Apparently more anger is required. ‘Like in Egypt’ somebody piped up.
Then Steve Reed called the one Liberal Democrat in the room to speak. Usually there would be more, hanging back on the difficult issues or surfing the mood of the audience on the easy hits. But only Cllr Roger Giess was there, the others being holed up upstairs holding an alternative budget meeting (that will be interesting to see). Giess is your typical, central casting Lib Dem – face like an under-baked pie, smug in voice and manner. The smugness wasn’t to last, for as someone next to me muttered ‘Here’s the real enemy’. Someone (not me) shouted ‘Tory pimp’, to loud applause.
Giess tried to smug his way through his three minutes, but it didn’t go well. He called for people to be ‘realistic’, which was met with derision coming as it did from the mouth of a Lib Dem. He said he would have liked to see a better office accommodation strategy. Oh dear. Services for residents are facing huge cuts, a thousand jobs are being lost, and Lambeth Lib Dems are obsessing about desks. Yes, desks. The kind on which managers who aspire to being humorous keep little signs saying ‘the buck stops here’. But the buck never stops on the desk of a Lib Dem, does it, Cllr Giess?
He smugged on, trying to critique cuts to scrutiny. Not a wise move as he’s Chair of Overview and Scrutiny, for which he gets an allowance of (if memory serves) just over £10,000 in addition to his basic councillor allowance. Laughter, scorn. He ended his speech and slid swiftly to the far door, like a rattled snake. When I looked over again, two minutes later, he was gone.
Then, after the orange sorbet, the cordon bleu mutton arrived at the table. Cllr Clare Whelan, Conservative. She spoke, to cries of ‘Tory scum’ and worse. She did her usual ‘awful’, ‘ghastly’, ‘think again, I implore’ routine. Shouts of ‘Where did your children go to school?’ from the floor. ‘They’ve grown up, they’ve left home’ she non-replied. Laughter. The atmosphere in the room was becoming more and more heated. Security and police now visible in the hallways outside Room 8.
At this point I noticed the snowy head of an elderly man in the audience. Something spectral about him. Could it be the Ghost of Lambeth Past? Yes, it was former Labour leader of Lambeth, Ted Knight. Knight of the living dead, architect of the reckless, irresponsible excesses that brought Lambeth to its knees in the 1980s, excesses which led to massive debt. Debt which would worry some third world countries. Debt the borough is still saddled with. More of him in a moment.
Lee Jasper was speaking in that way he does when there’s an audience. He harangued Cabinet to ‘use every mechanism to challenge’ the Tory Lib Dem government. As a side issue, I reflected, as I listened, that if Ken Livingstone had won the 2008 Mayoral election instead of Boris Johnson, I’ve no doubt the Tories would now be looking at abolishing London government all over again.
Anyway, shortly afterwards, Cllr Kingsley Abrams, a Labour councillor, addressed Cabinet. It had already been stated from the floor that he was the only member of Labour Group to vote against the budget cuts. He said he would fight to the death to save Minet library in his ward. Kingsley called on the Cabinet to resign and get ‘proper jobs’. Steve Reed remarked angrily that Kingsley’s behaviour was ‘disgraceful, coming from a Labour councillor’. Shouting ensued between Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, Cllr Pete Robbins, and Kingsley. The audience started shouting for Cabinet to apologise to Cllr Abrams. Chants of ‘Apologise’ and ‘Shame on you’. A policeman entered the room.
Back to Red Ted. He still has a powerful voice, for a 77-year-old. I jotted down what he had to say, verbatim. This is it.
I’m speaking tonight along with those representing those most vulnerable within the community. Can I just say that in actual fact I’ve heard tonight how savage these cuts are going to be.
I actually saw in the South London Press that the Leader of the Council on his Twitter – a useful mode of communication – told us that when he was last at a Cabinet meeting tears flowed down the young faces of the Cabinet members as they realised the savagery of the cuts they were being asked to make.
And yet you’re going ahead and making them. I’ve never heard such cynicism from people like yourselves. The Tory cuts programme is going to destroy the Welfare State at local level, you know that. And yet you act as the axe-wielders for the Coalition.
Instead of protecting the people that elected you into office, what are you doing? You are actually acting as the agents of this coalition government. Far from really saying no to the government, you are in reality telling us that these savage cuts you are making tonight will in practice be much more difficult next year.
And so you’re promising not only the cuts of tonight but also the cuts of next year too. And you’re sitting there having been elected to represent working class communities. What I would say when you say you all claim to have no choice, well that’s a lie. You do actually have a choice.
In the 1980s when councillors said no to Thatcher, they could actually be surcharged. They could lose their home, they could be made bankrupt. You have no such challenge tonight. You would not face those penalties.
In actual fact the only penalty probably you would at the end of the day face is a loss of income as a councillor . But surely you’re not in the business for that, you’re in the business to represent us. I will draw to a close. Can I just say when you tell us your cuts will be better than the opposition’s cuts, can I just say – tell that to the park rangers. A P45 from a Labour council is a P45.
In other words your cuts are as bad as anyone else’s cuts. You cuts are going to destroy the services here. So don’t hide behind the fact that you are making better cuts than anyone else. You weren’t elected to make cuts. You were elected to represent working class people. Working class. Say no to the cuts! No more cuts!
So there we have it – councillors of Lambeth past could be surcharged, now they can’t so it’s OK to set an illegal budget. Except, Mr Knight, it’s not. If we were to set an illegal budget the council would be taken into government control and cuts would be made which would be far worse in many vital services.
The meeting ended just before 9pm. I overheard Cllr Jim Dickson, Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing asking Ted Knight (who lives in Norwood in Lambeth) why he hadn’t attended any local Labour Party meetings where cuts had been discussed. He replied that he had been in Cambridge ‘organising people’ (to do what was unclear).
I reflected, on the bus home, that in Ted Knight’s day, we would probably have been there all night, with occasional trips to the long-defunct basement bar, denouncing each other, forming shaky alliances and breaking them minutes later, plotting and counter-plotting, devoting dwindling energies to futile gestures that achieve nothing for the people who voted for us, enjoying the sound of our own voices and the thrill of our own dogma, and bringing Labour into such disrepute that the Liberals – unbelievably – arose in Lambeth as the ‘responsible’ alternative to the Tories.
That was Lambeth in the 1980s. There were some in the audience last night, like Ted Knight, who would love to turn back the Town Hall clock, calling on us to break the law and set an illegal budget.
Lambeth in 2011 is different. Labour in Lambeth is different. Since 2006, Labour has been sorting out the financial mess of decades and seeking to improve key services. That job has now been made all the harder by the massive, ideological cuts, too fast and too deep, imposed on us by the Tory Lib Dem government. We are freezing the Council Tax for a third year, while we seek to protect frontline public services for the most vulnerable in our community. The living dead on the far left would happily destroy that.
Lambeth endorsed Labour last year – 44 councillors and 3 MPs. Elsewhere in the country, the Tories and Lib Dems were let in, and let loose, by those who chose not to vote Labour. Their reasons are various, that is their responsibility. But to those who now choose to blame Labour for cuts which councils across the country are being forced to make, I’d say this. By all means blame us for what we got wrong when we were in government, but be sure of your facts. If you now think you have a right to blame Labour for the destructive actions of a Tory Lib Dem government YOU helped to create, you are wrong. While you dream of the perfect sort of Britain you’d create, conscience untroubled, back in reality Labour councils like Lambeth will be clearing up your wreckage for years to come.