Tag Archives: Lambeth

Lambeth and the Titanic

It’s 100 years to the day since the Titanic disaster. Hours after the unsinkable Titanic sank, the Cunard liner Carpathia had arrived on the scene and picked up the 710 survivors from the inadequate number of lifeboats provided by the White Star Line (20, with a capacity of 1,178 people). 1,514 people had perished.

This appeared in the next edition of the Streatham News to be published.

It refers to a Mr J D Hahn, of Streatham, who was thought to be a victim of the disaster. This presents something of a mystery, as there is no J D Hahn recorded as passenger or crew. Looking through subsequent editions of the paper, the story of Mr Hahn doesn’t appear to have been followed up.

What’s certain is that a number of people died who had a connection with the area we now know as the London Borough of Lambeth.

Victims

A definite victim from Streatham, which in 1912 was part of the Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth, was Mr Richard William Smith, a 57-year-old widowed tea broker (for Reinach-Nephews and Co) residing at 53 Stanthorpe Road. He had embarked from Southampton on 10 April, occupying first class cabin A-19. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

It is recorded that the Titanic’s musicians played their instruments on deck to help keep passengers calm as the lifeboats were being swung out and the ship listed in the water, and it is said they played the hymn ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ as the Titanic sank and they died with it. Two of that band were Lambeth residents. Percy Cornelius Taylor, aged 32, was a cellist. He lived at 9 Fentiman Road, Oval. Georges Alexandre Krins, a 23-year-old Paris-born violinist, lived at 10 Villa Road, Brixton. Their bodies, if recovered, were never identified.

Also living in Brixton was W H Egg, 34, a Third Class steward, of 1a Trent Road, off Brixton Hill. He had previously served on the White Star liner Majestic. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

At 8 Lynton Mansions, Kennington Road, lived Rome-born Roberto Vioni, 18, a Waiter working in the panelled splendour of the A La Carte restaurant (located between the third and fourth funnel on B-Deck, managed by Signor Gatti). The Titanic was Roberto’s first ship. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

27 Tenison Street, Waterloo, was a lodging house which  20-year-old Jean Monoros, a Spaniard, gave as his address. He worked as an Assistant Waiter in the A La Carte restaurant, the Titanic being his first ship. His body was recovered by the Cable Ship Mackay-Bennett, which was chartered by the White Star Line to search for the dead. He was buried at sea on 21 April.

At 12 Mead Street, Kennington, lived 18-year-old Maurice Emile Victor Debreucq, Assistant Waiter in the A La Carte restaurant. His body was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett. He is buried in Mount Olivet cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, far from his native France.

At 22 Albert Mansions, South Lambeth Road, lived 28-year-old Sauce Cook (in the A La Carte restaurant) George Baptiste Bietrix. The Titanic was his first ship. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

25-year-old Adrien Finnin Chaboisson, Roast Cook in the A La Carte restaurant, lived at 17 Kennington Park Gardens. The Titanic was his first ship. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

Survivors

Harry Senior, aged 31, a stoker, of 17 South Road, Clapham Park, survived the sinking. He gave an account of his experiences to the New York Times on 19 April:

“I was in my bunk when I felt a bump. One man said. ‘Hello, she has been struck.’ I went on deck and saw a great pile of ice on the well deck below the forecastle, but we all thought the ship would last some time, and we went back to our bunks. Then one of the firemen came running down and yelled, ‘All muster for the lifeboats!’ I ran on deck, and the Captain [E J Smith] said:

” ‘All firemen keep down on the well deck. If a man comes up I’ll shoot him.’

“Then I saw the first boat lowered. Thirteen people were on board, eleven men and two women. Three were millionaires and one was [White Star chairman, J Bruce] Ismay.”

The fact of Ismay entering the first lifeboat, putting himself before his passengers, would lead to him being reviled for the rest of his life, labelled as ‘The Coward of the Titanic’. He died, disgraced, in 1937, the same year as Harry Senior.

Newlyweds Daniel and Mary Marvin (nee Farquarson) gave their last address in London as 58 Acre Lane, Brixton. They were both 18, from wealthy families and First Class passengers. Daniel died in the sinking, after helping his wife into boat 10, saying “It’s alright, little girl. You go. I will stay.” Mary would later remarry and lived until 1975.

The last Lambeth-connected survivor I know of was also the last survivor to be rescued from the water. Thomas Whiteley was an 18-year-old Saloon Steward. On 27 April he told the Stevens Point Journal:

“I floated on my life preserver for several hours,” he said. “When the sun came up I saw the collapsible raft in the distance, just black with men. They were all standing up. Mr. Lightoller, the second officer, was one of them.
‘It’s 31 lives against yours,’ he said, ‘you can’t come aboard. There’s no room.’ I pleaded with him in vain, and then, I confess, I prayed that somebody might die so I could take his place. I was only human. And then someone did die and let me aboard.”

Whiteley, from a stage family, would later take to the boards in the USA giving talks about the Titanic disaster and how he survived it. In World War One he served in the Royal Flying Corps. In the twenties he was back in America appearing in musical comedies and later in several Hollywood films.  In 1932 he returned to the UK, married and lived with his wife Isabel and their two daughters in Streatham. At the outbreak of World War Two he rejoined the RAF, 87th Squadron, and served as a Warrant Officer until his sudden death in 1944, aged 50. He is buried in the Ancona War Cemetery in Italy.

London Nautical School, situated in Stamford Street in Lambeth, between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, was founded in 1915, as a consequence of the official report by the Board of Trade into the loss of RMS Titanic. The school is a selective boys’ secondary, with an ethos aiming “to educate and prepare pupils to meet the needs of society either at sea or in any other occupation where responsibility, attention to duty and regard for others are valued equally with academic and practical skills.”

Postscript

This poem, The Wreck of the Titanic, appeared in the Streatham News of 20 April 1912, penned by someone named Honor Drury. For context, there was much scorn being poured on the Suffragette movement in the Streatham News at the time, and it was obviously hard to resist having a swipe at the Suffragettes in the middle of lamenting a huge maritime disaster.

The Titanic has sunk in her glory

With over a thousand souls,

The greatest liner in story –

And o’er her the broad ocean rolls!

The broad ocean rolls on for ever

While England sorrows aghast.

For her brave ones returning never

Who stayed with the wreck till the last.

For the rule of the sea prevailing

The women and children they save,

While in chivalry ever unfailing

The men found a watery grave.

Ye mothers and wives of England,

Who for women’s rights now pray,

Think on the wrecked Titanic –

Ye had your rights that day!

Rights ye have held through the ages,

Rights which still hold sway,

Though fiercely the Suffragette rages,

Think, will ye throw these away?

But the children of earth will struggle,

And labour and toil away,

While their newest and proudest achievement

Nature destroys in a day!

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lambeth Budget Meeting: Liberal And Tory Speeches

I’ve been asked to post the lead speeches from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at the recent Full Council meeting to set Lambeth’s budget for 2011-12. The meeting was held in closed session after the council chamber was taken over by protesters.

Here is the speech from Cllr Julia Memery (Conservative, Clapham Common), who is deputy leader of the Tory group and finance spokesperson.

And here is the speech from the Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Ashley Lumsden. Cllr Lumsden was lead councillor for finance during the Tory-Liberal administration of 2002-2006, when council tax was hiked by 40%, £3m was lost in fraud in the Housing service and the borough was left with next to nothing in reserves.

The speech from Labour leader Cllr Steve Reed has already been posted here.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics

Steve Reed’s Budget Speech To Lambeth Council

It has been reported, and I have commented here, on the way Lambeth Council’s meeting to set a legal budget, faced with massive Tory Lib Dem government cuts, was disrupted by protesters. Council then met in closed session, in the Assembly Hall of Lambeth Town Hall. Five speeches of the planned 41 were made before the budget was voted on.

Contrary to claims made by Lib Dem leader Cllr Ashley Lumsden, and his heir abhorrent, Cllr Steve Bradley, Labour councillors did not laugh and clap as the budget was voted on. This recording made in the meeting of Labour leader Cllr Steve Reed’s speech gives an impression of the tone of the meeting.

3 Comments

Filed under Politics

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.

15 Comments

Filed under Politics

Will Lambeth Move Towards Transparency?

Lambeth Town Hall

I was listening this morning to edited highlights of a recent Lambeth Council planning meeting (yes, I know, it sounds sad for a Sunday morning but it concerns an important development issue for my patch), recorded by Streatham resident Mark Oxley. It’s almost an hour long (much shorter than the actual meeting) and you can listen to it here.

A fair summary of a contentious meeting, recorded by a resident of the borough. Mark has said elsewhere that he intends to ‘find out just what rules govern taking notes of meetings.’ He was technically breaching the rules. I’ll explain why, and then explain why the rules should be changed.

Rule 20, one of the briefest rules in Lambeth Council’s lengthy constitution, has this to say:

‘No-one is allowed to take photographs of or record using any audio and/or visual equipment the proceedings in meetings unless permission is given at the meeting.’

The chair of a meeting can in theory adjourn a meeting if the rule is being broken, be they the Mayor (Full Council), the Leader (Cabinet meetings), a scrutiny chair, the chair of a scrutiny commission, or the chair of any other formally constituted meeting being held in public (note: council meetings are meetings in public rather than public meetings).

On occasion, ‘standing orders’ have been suspended (by agreement) to allow photography and audiovisual recording, as for example with the Full Council when civic awards are presented, or the rare occasions when public galleries are full and a video link is provided to an overflow room.

Quite frankly, Rule 20 exists for no good reason. How long it has existed and why it exists is a mystery to me. Why Lambeth councillors should not be photographed or recorded in town hall meetings when we can be photographed or recorded anywhere else is indefensible.

Other councils, quite rightly, offer a webcast of virtually every meeting. Here is a link to the feast of local democracy that Maidstone Borough Council has to offer.

That is a sensible way to provide the official record, so that residents who are unable to be at a meeting can catch up with it online. A live webcast which would be placed in an online archive for retrieval seems to be a sensible way forward. Some councils do this, and some, like Lambeth, don’t.

What about the unofficial record, like Mark Oxley’s podcast? Well, if councillors like me can tweet away merrily and even blog from council meetings (whilst paying due attention and guided, of course, by the Code of Conduct), why on earth shouldn’t the public be able to tweet, video, photograph and otherwise relay the meeting to a wider audience?

Neighbouring Southwark has recently agreed to allow people to make recordings in some of its meetings. Well done Southwark. It’s time for Lambeth to follow suit and abolish a pointless rule.

Across the country, councils have varying attitudes to how their meetings are recorded. Some have full, almost verbatim written minutes, some have literally bullet points. Some do webcasts, some don’t appear to be aware of the existence of the internet.

Surely there is a case, given growing concern about the democratic accountability of councils in a time when cuts are being made to services, to establish a national common level of transparency about where and when, and with what level of debate, decisions are made.

Some councils may, given their financial situation, not see investing in webcasting and fuller minuting as a priority. But allowing the public to transmit the words and actions of councillors beyond the town hall costs nothing and would be an important step towards greater transparency and accountability.

5 Comments

Filed under Politics

Dave’s Dodo: Thoughts On The Big Society

Big Society (Societus Crassus)

Observing the various relaunches of David Cameron’s cherished ‘policy’, the Big Society, it’s unsurprising that it never quite seems to get off the ground. Like the Dodo, that ungainly, ill-fated cousin of the pigeon, it does not possess the power of flight. Everyone knows what happened to Didus Ineptus.

Societus Crassus, Mr Cameron’s very own squawking, flightless bird, seems to be as clumsy as the Dodo. Cameron said today ‘People are enthusiastic if they are given the opportunity. People like the idea.’

Do they? Cameron might claim as much in defending the idea, existing as it does as a cover for ideological cuts. But is the ‘passion’ he spoke of today shared by a waiting nation? Not according to a Sky News poll, which showed that 78% of viewers would not volunteer themselves, compared to 22% who would.

A Sunday Mirror poll yesterday showed 41 per cent of people think the Big Society is a cover for cuts – against 21 per cent who back the idea.

Cameron today claimed his Big Society ‘will not make us popular. In fact it will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular. I recognise that is my duty. We have to do this for the good of the country.’

An interesting, if Dodo-ish, attitude. But can a policy that relies on mass volunteering work without the required mass of volunteers? Can public services and voluntary sector organisations, currently being dismembered by Cameron’s government, reassemble the hacked up pieces of themselves and carry on?

The opportunity to volunteer, to make a difference and contribute to the good causes has existed ever since human beings first had spare time. Look, for example, at the honours list each time it comes out and there are hundreds of people who have done good work in their community. But they have never before been expected to take on the burden of running significant services, day in and day out.

They do what they do because they have spare time to do it. But expect them to take on the running of, for example, a local library, and that could be a back-breaking pressure for many. Is it a fair or realistic expectation? Does the Big Society give anyone any choice in the matter? If local services will disappear unless people volunteer, is it volunteering? Is it obligation? Is it what Cameron calls ‘responsibility’ or ‘duty’? Or is it an open-ended community sentence  for people who haven’t done anything wrong?

David Cameron is placing  a romantic 18th and 19th Century notion of philanthropy, where big benefactors endowed hospitals, orphanages, almshouses or free public libraries (which were then run by paid staff), up against the reality of public services in the 21st Century (with all the expectations of high quality that are placed on them, rightly, by modern users).

It unsettles me, given Britain’s unhappy recent history with bankers, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have now turned to large financial institutions (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland) to help the Big Society fly. Investment will now take the form of loans to ‘social enterprises’ from the Big Society Bank. Loans, not grants. And the banks, as banks do, will inevitably want to see some return on their £200 million investment.

In addition, £100 million has been earmarked from dormant bank accounts. Ah, those dormant bank accounts. I’ve lost count of the number of times dormant bank accounts have been earmarked for various purposes in recent years. I’m surprised there’s anything left in them.

That initial pot of £300 million is around 3.5 times what Lambeth, one borough among many, is being forced to cut by government over the next three years. I presume it’s intended as seed money to encourage others to invest, which leads me to wonder whether the Big Society Bank, and the Big Society, are intended as stealth mechanisms for wholesale privatisation of public services. Where publicly run services, weakened by cuts, are being set up to fail by Cameron, Clegg and Co, private enterprise will be lined up to pick over what is left in the debris.

In Lambeth we are taking a different approach, advancing plans to become a co-operative council. We are driven, not by commercial imperative, but by co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity. We recognise that to protect public services we must take a democratic, mutual approach with the public we serve. So, as examples, the ambition is that youth services will be run by community-led commissioning that allows very local decision making on the best way to provide services, library services may be placed in a trust (or trusts) owned by the community, and schools encouraged to group into co-operative trusts, sharing resources to benefit children.

Lambeth Council is not abandoning services. We are working with residents to provide them. The response from the community has been encouraging. Unlike Cameron’s Big Society, our co-op council is ready to fly.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

Knight Of The Living Dead

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Politics