A Bad Night For Democracy

Cuts protesters begin their 'people's assembly'

It was always going to be a depressing night, with Labour councillors in Lambeth voting for cuts we don’t want to make. We always knew there would be protesters at the town hall, calling on us to make no cuts, set an illegal budget, thereby playing into hands of the Tory Lib Dem government.

The thicket of Socialist Worker and other placards, the string of police and the cameras outside the town hall entrance were the prelude to the council meeting to set the 2011-12 budget, which makes £37 million of cuts to services. I was asked by one protester if I was a councillor. Yes, I replied. ‘I hope you die of cancer, you c**t,’ she said. She was wearing a Lewisham Against The Cuts badge. I said I hoped she got all the way home safely.

In the council chamber, I sat in my seat and noticed spit on my sleeve. Phlegmatic people, those trots.

A few minutes later, the gallery was opened and the noise began. Shouts of ‘shame on you’, ‘take back our council’, etc.

The Mayor, Cllr Neeraj Patil, entered and a man shouted from the gallery ‘Here comes the flummery’. Chants of ‘no ifs, no buts, no coalition cuts’ and ‘let them in’. The latter referring to the fact that about half of one gallery was empty and protesters felt more people should be let in. The Mayor attempted to keep order, but order wasn’t to be the order of the day.

In fact, the gallery was half empty because seats were reserved for members of the nine deputations who were due to address Council, and they were waiting in the ante chamber to come in and speak. Someone shouted ‘They’re all cronies and apparatchiks in that gallery’. Actually, no. I scanned the faces and the only one I could put a name to was Ted Knight, who was laughing and clapping.

For the record, those deputations, which we never got to hear, were tenants’ representatives, pensioners, disability campaigners, Lambeth Save Our Services, adventure playground representatives, Unison and the NUT. There was also a petition to be delivered protesting about the cuts to the park rangers service.

The Mayor attempted to ask, politely, that the people in the galleries allow the proceedings of the council to function. He asked three times and was barracked. He explained that he would have to adjourn the meeting for ten minutes with the intention of clearing the gallery. The meeting was adjourned and councillors rose, some drifting from the chamber and some, like me, staying in their seats.

Jon Rogers, the head honcho of Lambeth Unison used the microphone in the well of the chamber to tell the protesters that if they persisted, none of the delegations would get to speak and the council meeting would be held in closed session. To no avail.

I looked up from my speech notes to see a man, with a baby in a papoose, dancing and clapping in the well of the council chamber. Other people with banners and placards began to walk in. I filmed this.

I was then told by an officer that Council would be reconvening in the Assembly Hall, at the back of the town hall. And so it did. No delegations, and only five speeches in total, not the 41 which had been indicated. Two from Labour (Cllr Paul McGlone, Cllr Steve Reed), two from the Lib Dems (Cllr Gavin Dodsworth, Cllr Ashley Lumsden) and one from the Tories (Cllr Julia Memery).

Then the votes. Eight amendments, six from the Lib Dems and two from the Conservatives. Those were rejected one by one by show of hands. Then the substantive vote. A recorded vote, with the name of each councillor present being read out by the Mayor and each in turn saying ‘for’ or ‘against’. Half an hour and a legal budget was set, containing the effects of savage and unnecessary cuts imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, on a scale not seen since before the Second World War.

So what did the protest and council chamber occupation actually achieve? Councillors having a truncated debate in closed session with police at the doors, heard only by a handful of council officers and a few journalists. Protesters talking to themselves in the council chamber, glorying in having – momentarily – prevented openly accountable, democratically elected local democracy from functioning.

Whose opinions were changed? What would the deputations have had to say if they could have been heard? I would like to have known. What would Labour councillors have said about the effects of cuts in their wards? How did Lib Dem and Tory councillors feel about being let off the hook over the cuts forced on Lambeth by their government? Relief, I would imagine.

I’ve no doubt there were genuine local residents in the town hall last night. But the manner of the protest didn’t allow their voices to be heard by councillors, or councillors to be heard in return.

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15 Comments

Filed under Politics

15 responses to “A Bad Night For Democracy

  1. emma

    I’m a Labour party member and live on Acre Lane. I attended the demo and wanted to attend the meeting too to hear from Councillors and the deputations.

    I am 25 and have been a Labour party member for less than a year. I have decided today to cancel my Labour party membership because of the Labour Counsellors in Lambeth. From the way I have read Counsellors refer to me, it seems you all HATE me for not agreeing with you. I don’t want to be part of a party where that happens.

    Stewards working at the Town Hall told us we could enter the building to hear the meeting. I ended up trapped in a corridor, with stewards holding the doors shut against me in both directions. Nobody told us what was going on, where we were supposed to be, or whether or not we could hear the meeting. That’s when people, understandably, got upset, and that’s why the meeting was disrupted. I was confused, disappointed and angry.

    I am horrified to read the way you and other Councillors have written about the demonstrators on blogs today and on Twitter. You seem to have utter contempt for anyone living in the ward who doesn’t agree with you, to be able to dismiss us so easily. I find that very, very upsetting.

    You have made me very sad because I thought Labour was the party for me. Nationally, I feel a great affinity with Labour, which makes it all the sadder that at a local level, you have made me feel totally alienated from the party.

  2. Mark Harrison

    Dear Emma

    I’m very sorry to hear you have decided to cancel your Labour membership. I do think that you have seriously misinterpreted the feelings of Lambeth Labour councillors.

    We came to Wednesday’s meeting fully prepared to take our difficult decision on the budget openly and transparently in front of the public. We expected and respected the rights of residents of Lambeth to make their objections to the cuts clear. We wanted to hear deputations from Lambeth’s tenants, pensioners, trade unions and service users. We didn’t get to do that.

    We are angry about what happened because a small minority of protestors came along on Wednesday with the clear intention of disrupting and stopping a meeting of the Council. I accept that the issue of the seating in the gallery was a problem (one that Mark gives the background to above), but this was the excuse this minority used to carry out their intention: to disrupt the meeting, prevent councillors from meeting in public and to occupy the Council chamber. These protestors have done the same thing in the past week in Islington and Haringey. It is an affront to democracy. It is not right for a handful of people to prevent democratically-elected councillors from meeting in public.

    Fundamentally the Labour party is a democratic socialist party. We believe in democratic means to achieve our ends. That’s why we are so angry at the actions of this undemocratic minority. The anger is not directed at the decent residents of Lambeth who came to express their views and their opposition to cuts to public services, but who intended to respect democracy and allow councillors to do their job.

    Mark’s blog sums it up perfectly: I’ve no doubt there were genuine local residents in the town hall last night. But the manner of the protest didn’t allow their voices to be heard by councillors, or councillors to be heard in return.

    Mark Harrison
    Labour Councillor for Prince’s Ward

  3. cllrmarkbennett

    Emma

    I’m very sorry to hear that you have made a decision to leave the Labour Party. I hope you will reconsider. I don’t ‘hate’ anybody for not agreeing with me, life is too short, but when people have differing views it is best to have a civilised debate.

    What the protest on Wednesday achieved was the prevention of accountable public debate. Councillors were ushered away to meet in private. Not, I hope, what any of us wanted. We had no chance to advance our own views at all, or hear the views of others or the public. All we were allowed to hear in the council chamber was shouting.

    If you think I or my Labour colleagues want to make any cuts to an improving council like Lambeth, you are mistaken. It remains the case that this year we had to set a budget of £37 million cuts, as a result of the cuts to our funding handed down by the Tory Lib Dem government. We are unable to set a no cuts budget because that would be illegal, and would in any case hand a democratically elected Labour borough’s financial affairs into the hands of the Tory Lib Dem government. Their cuts would be far deeper.

    A review of security in the town hall is being conducted. I am sorry you had difficulties in the building. Hopefully these issues will be addressed for future meetings.

    Finally, it is a shame that protesters prevented any council debate from taking place in public because it only allowed officially elected Tories and Lib Dems to walk away from the town hall, scot free. They want you to believe Labour are to blame. You helped them escape any responsibility.

    Mark

  4. In all seriousness, what do you expect people to do? What difference would the deputations being heard have made to the budget?

    I think the point I’m trying to make is that the people protesting in this country at the moment are beyond the “democratic process” you describe – it has failed them at every turn. You’re obviously upset about what happened at the meeting, and rightly so, being spat at and called a c**t is never pleasant, but you represent, for those people, a system that has not just failed them, but actively screwed them over. I don’t think you’re responsible by any means, I’m sure you’re a decent public servant, but you represent a system that has failed to operate in the interests of the majority, and people are very, very angry, and they will take that anger out on any representation of our existing political system.

    I know what they’re doing isn’t a solution to the problems, but they don’t think you’re the solution either, they think you are the problem.

    I think much of the political class are hugely underestimating how angry people are.

    You may see your aborted meeting as a bad day for democracy, many people see the last 30 years as bad for democracy. They’re not necessarily wrong.

  5. Mark

    I am a party member of 30 years and lived and tried to be active in Lambeth when I came to London in 1987. It was all posturing and leftism – principles without power – no practical solutions. Ted Knight had just been disqualified for not setting a rate and we were about to get Derek Hatton and his lot trying to take over.
    To Emma – please stay – I nearly left because of the posturing, but stayed because I believed in Labour as a movement and I don’t like the alternative. To Mark – stick with it – the party needs those who are willing to shoulder the burden of representation – even it is means being treated as you were.
    The alternative it a Tory led government with Liberals who for years told us they were more left than Labour. The Libs lie has been proven and we need to be ready to provide the alternative, regain government and get back to a fairer approach.

  6. Alan

    Emma – what did you think was going to happen when you went – a civilized debate? The intent of the demonstrators was evident.

    And how do you think that this councillor would react? He was spat on, called a c*nt and told that it would be a good thing if he died of cancer. Your group was hardly going to get a rave write up, was it?

    He is not saying that you yourself said those things. But to resign from the party in a huff because you could not say anything at a meeting which is not yours to participate in anyway – whilst apparently not having any empathy at the frustrations and upset that the councillor obviously feels – is naive and frankly, strange. It is the Tories and Lib Dems who are making this happen. Just as Labour allowed Tory and Lib Dem local authorities to increase spending on police, schools, health and other local services in their budgets, it is the Tory coalition that is causing this and other Labour councils to have to make cuts. You have a catastrophic lack of politics if you don’t get that and if you don’t understand that these meetings are for elected councillors (who are as much a part of ‘the community’ as you are – and, by definition, more accountable). Unlike the councillor, I don’t care if you leave my party. I dont want people who refuse to make a strand against the abuse that the councillor was hurled and who have the political judgement of a gnat to have any say in its direction. It is people like you that have flounced off to the Lib Dems in recent years as an oppositionist protest against Labour, so why don’t you do that? Oh, wait…..

  7. PMofGuiseley

    I’m not a London resident (any more) but will see a Labour-led council in Leeds facing the same dilemma following the cuts to council budgets. The choice isn’t available: just variations of least worst. And the next Labour government will face a task of rebuilding social structures again, as happened post 1997 – imperfections, errors and all. It is hellish to see good people having to make these decisions, more hellish to have to make them and most hellish to face the brunt of their impact. But those most to blame wore yellow or blue rosettes in the election, not red. And those who want to change things for the better in the future will be wearing red rosettes too…

  8. Paul Atherton

    @Emma, I think you are absolutely right to remove yourself from the Labour party for the reasons you have elucidated.

    CllrMarkBennett would like you to believe that Lambeth Council decisions were forced upon them by the Government.

    This is clearly untrue.

    Whilst the level of cuts were drawn up by the government how they were apportioned was completely down to Lambeth Council.

    Lambeth Council could have shown the initiative in the cuts situation by limiting all top salaries t0 £52,000 per year or a £1,000 per week.

    This is approximately 20 times what a person on JSA would receive.

    And would save the Borough in the region of £2 million a year.

    As we keep being reminded Lambeth is one of the poorest Boroughs in London, so why are it’s staff paid such ludicrously high salaries (the Chief Executive is famously paid more than the Prime Minister), when its constituents are living in such abject poverty.

    How about all Councillors refusing to take their allowances for a year?

    Another saving of approximately £1/2 Million.

    A 10% cut across the board for all Council Staff, who are after all only there to ensure the safety, health and benefits of the residents of Lambeth and therefore should be doing everything possible to ensure that the impacts of the cuts do not hit frontline services. The council employ over 5,000 staff on an average salary of £20,000 per year that’s £100 million per year and would bring in savings of £10 million.

    They could have removed the costly and pointless complaints system that achieves nothing yet costs Lambeth residents approximately another £1/2 million per year.

    These are just a few things they could have done to prove to the electorate that they were genuinely concerned about the people they are paid to care about.

    They didn’t.

    I think it disingenuous to try and suggest that it was anyone other than the council that has made these decisions.

    Yes, cuts are coming. But less money doesn’t necessarily mean less services.

    As Stephen Greenhalgh, Conservative leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, said: “We have to recognise and make the case that we can get by on less money. I think with less money you become more creative about how you tackle things.”

  9. This is just selfish and Kamikaze politics. If any English Council did not set a balanced budget then the Chief Officer’s would be legally obliged to do so regardless of any political considerations. If they refused then Pickles would do it. Does anyone really want Eric Pickles to set their Council budget?

    I do believe that if we unite and build – we can defeat this Tory-led government over policies and it is possible we may even bring them down as a government before 2015. Yet at the first major labour movement political test we find the tiny and unrepresentative ultra left extremists attacking not the ConDems – but Labour Councils!

    Instead of working together we see them in the finest Monty Python Life of Brian traditions do their best to wreak and split. In London Town Halls Council reception staff have been beaten up by these yob protesters and even disabled Councillors attacked. Saying that you hope “you die of cancer” is typical.

    What did they think they would gain? Despite the fact that they could not get any one of the 4500 Labour councillors to publicly support their view they went ahead with their completely divisive and sectarian campaign anyway.

    What mandate have these tiny telephone kiosk sects to dictate to anyone what they should do?

    Is it not bad enough that opinion polls show that the majority of ordinary people actually think these cuts are necessary. Now, thanks to the SPEWers, SWPers, LRC and the rest of the Heinz 57 trots – even more people will accept the Tory lies that Councils do not need to slash and burn if they were just a bit more efficient. Well done comrades!

    How can the Broad Left now work with these idiots. Who obviously don’t give a toss about the interests of ordinary working people and who think that all you have to do to bring about their revolution is to foam at the mouth and scream abuse. Grow up – you are just helping the Tories get off the hook.

    Talk about Tory fifth columnists. Pickles must be laughing his ample socks off at his new best mates ever.

  10. @John Gray

    Do you genuinely believe that councils are run efficiently?

    Especially Lambeth???

    I genuinely think this shouldn’t be about politics. I think it should all be about residents.

    Whilst I would never condone violence, I think what the protesters did was important.

    It raised awareness in the media of the failings of all council’s who are not looking at their core inefficiencies.

    And this isn’t about petty politics, but the voices of the people who in part elected these officials and whose interests they are there to protect. That’s all residents regardless of their politics.

    These protesters had as much right as members of their boroughs to air their grievances as any other resident.

  11. Sorry Paul you cannot have it both ways – you cannot say you don’t condone violence and yet think what happened that night and elsewhere is at acceptable? Residents and workers who wanted to genuinely protest were pushed aside by those who were not interested in peaceful protest or even civil disobedience but only in deliberate, politically motivated, thuggery and yobbery.

  12. Paul Atherton

    @JohnGray

    Actually I can.

    And legitimately so.

    If the protesters had committed a breach of law (there were enough law enforcement officers at all councils where these protests took place), then the law is there to decided which voices are “thuggish and yobbish” as you put it.

    Those committing offenses should have been arrested and removed.

    From what you are suggesting, it is only people who are unlikely to be heard or noticed that should engage with the political process and that is certainly not what I want.

    And as I said, I’m not interested in petty politics, I’m interested in the rights of all residents in Lambeth, regardless of their political leanings.

  13. Err Paul, so spitting on someone (assault) and saying “I hope you die of cancer you cunt” (insulting or threatening behaviour) are not criminal offences?

    Never mind the female Council reception staff who were covered in bruises the next day?

    You are making petty political excuses for unacceptable yobbish and thuggish violent behaviour.

    • Paul Atherton

      @JohnGray,

      So your issue should be with the police who failed to do their job effectively and not the protesters.

      I started my response to you by stating that I in no way condone violence and that remains the case.

      I also went on to say that anyone that committed violence or crimes of any sort during the protests, should have been arrested.

      So I am unclear what “political excuses” you think I am making?

  14. You cannot “blame” the Police for peoples behaviour. People are responsible for their actions. If you do not condone violence then you must condemn the thuggish and yobbish behaviour by some protestors.

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