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.