The Labour people need


11:00 am - June 10th 2010

by Kate Belgrave    


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Never one to pass up on local democracy’s offerings, yours truly recently attended the new Lewisham council’s inaugural AGM.

I went partly because I pay council tax in Lewisham and like to clap eyes on the hapless schmucks in charge of it at the dawn of each municipal term’s disasters. There was another draw, though. It struck me that as one of Labour’s outright London wins at the recent elections, Lewisham had real potential as a pain in Cameron and Clegg’s mingled butt, particularly in the fight for local public services.

Lewisham is a place where Labour could round on the coalition’s cuts programme, and begin to restore the ‘tacit covenant’ that Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford believe Labour must have with constituents – ‘a covenant about housing, work and security, a sense of neighbourliness and community.’

So it was that I arrived at Lewisham’s AGM with my tongue hanging out. Would third-term mayor Sir Steve Bullock be my kind of Labour? A frothing, Ted Knight-esque commie threatening sabotage and overspend to defend services seemed a bit much to hope for, but I thought Sir Steve might say a few fighting words about wrangling extra funds out of government for Lewisham’s poor. At the very least, he might pretend resistance.

I think Sir Steve and I began to go our separate ways in the ideological sense about a minute into his AGM address. It occurred to me that his speech sounded less like a warning to the Cameron-Clegg coalition than a job interview for it. Certainly, he evidenced distaste for a Labour rebellion against the coalition threat.

‘It would be easy to declare our opposition to the cuts the coalition is proposing,’ he began. ‘I intend to invite the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups to meet to discuss Lewisham’s relations with the government.’ Sir Steve hoped good relations with central government would ensue.

So far, so hopelessly civilised.

Like so many of today’s political visionaries, Sir Steve was eager to retail the notion that massive public spending cuts were crucial to the restoration of the national economy. ‘Whatever the outcome of the general election, severe cuts would have been made to public expenditure… unless we transform the way public services are delivered, the impact on our community could be devastating.’

The specifics of this transformation weren’t available at the AGM, so I got Sir Steve on the phone after it. I’ve covered local government for a long time now, and know all too well that the phrase ‘transforming the way our public services are delivered’ tends to present in real-life as abortive outsourcing initiatives, failed public-private partnerships, and/or replacing staff with useless web applications.

We had a nice chat, but didn’t get far with it. ‘It’s early days,’ Sir Steve pointed out. He assured me he was not an outsourcing zealot – ‘I’m not going to follow a privatisation agenda for the sake of it’ – but he’ll work with the private sector when there’s advantage in it. We’ll wait and see if any other ideas are in the ether. What we can say now is that cutting jobs, or sending them out of the borough would be disastrous. The council is the biggest employer in Lewisham.

Regarding local Labour’s relationship with the Cameron-Clegg coalition: Sir Steve expected respect. ‘One of the lessons of the past is that you consult local government [before implementing change], rather than implementing change and seeing what happens.’

I asked Sir Steve if the coalition had indicated it would consult. He said it hadn’t indicated that it wouldn’t. I told him tales of Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council, which keeps council tax down by charging the poor for homecare and meals. I’ve seen the H&F cabinet’s consultation process in action, too, at protest meetings: it largely involved running for it when furious meeting attendees went postal.

Sir Steve said he drew strength from a recent gathering of local government worthies, where new communities secretary Eric Pickles flashed a powerpoint slide that read ‘localism, localism, localism.’ Indeed. Tony Blair once had a slide that read ‘education, education, education.’ Powerpoint isn’t always a genuine read.

That’s it for now: post-election local Labour rhetoric as the party begins its fightback on behalf of – well, itself, mostly, on this early evidence, but hopefully others. Suffice to say for now that Lewisham needs local public services. It has high child poverty rates, high unemployment and problems with youth crime. Cruddas is right – a tacit covenant would be good. An explicit one would be better. I’ll hang out for either.

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Local Government ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


The Labour people need doesn’t exist. The Labour people have is one that shouldn’t exist.

Sir Steve comes across as a guy who is trying to work constructively so as to make the best of a difficult financial situation. This is a responsible thing to do, not least for the poorest and most vulnerable people in the area. It is, admittedly, less entertaining for journalists than “frothing” or “pretend resistance”.

However, Kate, you might be right, and the approach you favour might be better for the people of Lewisham. In which case, I would be interested to know why you didn’t stand for election yourself? It seems a shame that the people of Lewisham will not benefit from your insights into the best ways to protect the most vulnerable members of their community.

Come on, Iain – there’s plenty of room for sensible in this that doesn’t involve just rolling over and taking it.

Call me crazy (and I know you will) but Bullock could be public about the devastation these cuts will cause for people in Lewisham. He could argue for ringfencing of vital budgets. He could argue for a local rebanding of council tax. Lewisham is full of new, yuppie rebuilds (I live in them) that are better place to take a hit than the thousands who rely on the council. You can have radical ideas without the radicalism of Knight. Bullock could be part of a London-wide organisation of London Labour councils (which certainly have the numbers now) that take the coalition on head on. At the very least, Labour locally could make the right noises. Newham (har har), Lewisham, Hackney et al – why aren’t they presenting a united front?

Cruddas makes the excellent point that Labour must reconnect with the grassroots to rebuild. I challenge you to explain how accepting the fact of cuts and offering little in the way of political alternatives will assist such a rebuild. What the hell is Labour meant to be?

As for running for office – is that an invitation to join the Labour party? I’ll make a deal with you, dude. If Labour turns into Labour, I’ll give some thought to joining it. Until then, I might as well hang round on the outskirts and suck on the hind tit with the rest.

This Sir Steve Bollock sounds like just the ticket & I agree with Iain Coleman’s first point.

As to the persistance of the Labour stench in Lewisham, I reckon it remains solidly Labour, and poor, due to several important factors:

1) Political Stockholm Syndrome.

It never ceases to amaze me that people will continue to vote for the party that has entrenched welfarism and effectively robbed the common man (and woman) a way out of the morass.

2) I’ve been to Lewisham. It’s twinned with Mogadishu.

Joking aside, I lived there 10-or-so years ago and I think it’s fair to say that people of above average ability, intelligence, aptitude or potential are unlikely to stay there long.

3) Multiculturalism.

Labour’s record in government is one of doggedly pursuing multi-culturalism. Their intentions may well have all been good. The results have been disastrous for parts of the country with large and/or varied immigrant populations.

Multiculturalism has encouraged people to identify themselves along ethnic or religious lines. The tacit effect has been a balkanisation of society, into a multitude of competing and inward-looking special interest groups. The urban effect is one of ghettoisation, examples of which are plentiful in Lewisham and many other parts of London.

Notwithstanding a rump of imbeciles that exists in every cultural, ethnic and racial group, people of every origin CAN rub along together nicely, until the US and THEM factions emerge, encouraging inate human groupishness.

Labour have made an artform out of politically capitalising on this disarray and dischord, effectively destroying society for their own political benefit in a way Thatcher could never have conceived of.

Cheers,
AJ

“effectively destroying society for their own political benefit ”

They lost.

I think he meant

“effectively destroying society for the benefit of massaging the collective ego of an idealistic but naive liberal/left middle-class Labour party leadership with an experimentally unproven and unpragmatic approach to retaining diversity by encouraging a semi-apartheid approach to multiculuralism.”

Didn’t he?

So after one meeting, you’ve managed to rationalise sitting on the sidelines and complaining for 5 years ratter than getting involved. That must be a relief!

@ Rich G:

“So after one meeting, you’ve managed to rationalise sitting on the sidelines and complaining for 5 years ratter than getting involved. That must be a relief!”

Well, pretty much, although I’ve been writing about other councils for years. It is a relief, though, to begin bitching about a council closer to home. Traveling to Hammersmith was costing me.

@Al J – So much for a brawl, son. I think we’re on the same page re: Labour, if not Lewisham. I live in Lewisham, and consider myself quite the urbane urbanite.

The point re: Labour is well made, though. There’s no point the Milibands or big Balls of this world yapping on about rebuilding Labour from the grassroots if those out representing the grassroots plan to do nothing of the kind. I remain AMAZED at the ease with which local Labour have embraced the notion that public sector cuts are necessary and unvoidable. There is absolutely no talk of resistance whatsoever.

The thing is – it doesn’t make fiscal sense to argue that cuts are the only way to balance the books. People who rely on public services and/or public sector jobs – as they do in deprived boroughs like Lewisham – won’t simply go away when those jobs and services disappear. Quite the contrary. They’ll take up thieving, drugs and violence, and come round to your house to help themselves to those items that they feel they are missing. A greater need for police and prisons will follow shortly thereafter. Generations will be lost. I understand that Thatcher spent a great deal on those aspects of the public sector.

The point is: Labour won well at the local level in the May elections. The rebuild and reconnect with the grassroots should start at that level. Why, then, are local Labour councillors looking to cosy up to the coalition? Where’s the argument on behalf of constituents? Where is the fresh thinking?

Kate,

“The point is: Labour won well at the local level in the May elections.”

There is a problem here, which is that Labour only won well at the local level where it did in most cases (I do not know Lewisham enough to comment) because its national block vote turned out and voted Labour blindly; this vote is not normally motivated enough to turn out for local (low-profile) elections. The only way to judge if Labour has won well is to see if they retain their share of the vote in local elections without a general election. Otherwise, whilst they technically won well, they actually just reinforced a status quo.

People who rely on public services and/or public sector jobs – as they do in deprived boroughs like Lewisham – won’t simply go away when those jobs and services disappear. Quite the contrary. They’ll take up thieving, drugs and violence, and come round to your house to help themselves to those items that they feel they are missing. A greater need for police and prisons will follow shortly thereafter.

A typically patronising view of the “filthy” masses from a Labourite – if the state doesn’t help them out, they’ll come and fuck up the middle classes. How disgusting. Whatever happened to encouraging people to sort out their problems as communities, rather than making them dependent on the state?

I’m dying to know what Blanco thinks will happen when jobs and services are taken away, it’s quite hard to pull ones socks up if the Gov has taken away aforementioned footwear and persists in stamping on ones feet.

And as a sidenote I’m always surprised Tories are so anti-drug dealing, after all to be a dealer you have to operate in a purely capitalist model with zero regulation, you need to know the marketplace, show entrepeneurship, be a skilled salesperson, have a decent business model… it’s perfect for them, really.

I think the question here is more whether the socks you are wearing are cashmere or polyester (sorry blanco – that sounds horribly middle-class also), than having them taken away totally, which has not been suggested.

But the argument Tim W will no doubt appear to make will be based on the fact that with only a minimal safety net people have more incentive to get out and make a difference to their lives.

What sort of ‘resistance’ do you want? Attempting to *actually* resist (in some way or other) Tory government policy is usually tried by at least a couple of Labour councils when Labour are out of power nationally (from the Poplar Rates Rebellion onwards), and it tends not to end very well. This is a centralised country and the law is firmly on the side of central government. Attempting to offer some form of alternative (both symbolically and in terms policy) within the limited framework councils operate in is different and something that Labour councils ought to seriously consider. Though even *then* the cards are stacked in favour of central government.

I simply love your writing, Kate!

What the hell is Labour meant to be?

What it is meant to be and what it is are two separate things. With this leadership challenge we have the defunct New Labour project on-going, the next, we may (don’t hold your breath) get a left-winger on the ballot other than a token one that the Fabians can really get hot under the collar about.

Bullock could be part of a London-wide organisation of London Labour councils (which certainly have the numbers now) that take the coalition on head on. At the very least, Labour locally could make the right noises. Newham (har har), Lewisham, Hackney et al – why aren’t they presenting a united front?

I think that they can’t present a united front – if they did that would mean they had a broad church to bring in, each New Labour council is fighting (rolling over and taking a good kicking to the head) because they agree with the cuts. They are not fighting against them because it is good for the collective soul to be punished for the last 13 years of un-Labourism. Being what they are and the efficiency savings will be delivered over a phone line that has been disconnected.

Hi all,

A few points:

@blanco – do not call me a Labourite, or I will call you a bumhole. I am not a Labour party member and am deeply hurt to think someone thinks I am. I am, however, patronising. You can have a few points there.

The point I’m making, though – patronising or not – is that the middle class hasn’t thought these cuts through. People have accepted – blindly, for some reason – the argument that cuts are necessary and that there will be pain. They haven’t, however, stopped to think what happens when you simply pull the rug out from under people who have been camped on the rug for a while.

If people are suddenly forced into a position where they haven’t got adequate housing, and even food, if benefits are cut, they’ll go and get those things for themselves. Who the hell wouldn’t? Nobody’s just going to sit at home and starve politely to help the public debt.

It’s not enough to say people should get off benefits and into work if there isn’t any work around. I’m trying to promote the selfish notion that even dumb capitalists who don’t believe the cuts will affect them need to consider the fact that they may well be affected. If you starve people of education, and the means to achieve a basic standard of living, you can expect serious social problems, and you can expect them on your doorstep. You’ll need to pour any spare change you have into policing and prisons. Cameron has been rather quiet about that aspect of things.

There’s no doubt that there should be a preference for community based, rather than state, solutions (I’m no fan of big government), but that sort of idea needs to evolve. Cameron and Clegg want to make their cuts now, with their spending review due by September, I think. You can’t just go from providing for people to not providing for them without accepting there’ll be fallout. And so there. Calling me patronising is doubtless a bit of a turnon, but ultimately doesn’t deal with the point I’ve raised.

@Alun – agreed that Labour council rebellions haven’t been particularly glorious. Steve Bullock referenced Ted Knight’s rebellion and wrote off the notion of any sort of return to it. My point is that Labour at the local level, where it has renewed strength, should be working in a concerted fashion to come up with something better than ‘the coalition is absolutely right and I hope the Tories are nice to me.’ Co-ordinated action between Labour councils could be useful. The coalition is not particularly strong and has already taken a hit with Laws’ departure. United action around strong, existing campaigns like defending council housing could be useful and send a good message – certainly a better one than Bullock sent. My point ultimately is that simply rolling over – even in rhetoric – is hardly the means by which to connect with the grassroots.
@Will – yr absolutely right. Thing is, Labour ought not then to be blathering on about reconnecting with the grassroots. I’ve got more pieces now on Lewisham though, and will follow events, so we’ll see.

The pudding will proven when these councils start to receive grants comparative to other parts of the country. Most London boroughs receive very high grants from Government and should think themselves very lucky. I would like to see grants delivered by the same per head of population across the country. Mind you, I am told that should our council receive the same grant as Wandsworth or Westminster it is quite possible that we council tax payers could receive a dividend at the end of the year.

Kate,

You seem to think I’m in Labour, for some reason. Which is somewhat amusing, given your own upset at someone else thinking you might be a member of that same party. As it happens, I am a Liberal Democrat, and was involved for a few years in helping to run a Lib Dem council. Hence I have some idea of the kinds of problems Lewisham councillors will be facing.

Sir Steve and his colleagues may have the right ideas about how best to manage Lewisham’s financial situation, or they may not. It does seem, however, from your report, that they are making a constructive attempt to engage with central government, in the hope of making a persuasive case for extra support for particular local needs. This does work, from time to time, whereas vituperative protests tend to be much less effective. Should Sir Steve seek to build political support for Labour at the possible expense of the hardest-pressed members of the community he represents?

I have no particular brief for Sir Steve, or for Labour councillors in Lewisham. However, they have at least been willing to step up and take responsibility for these difficult problems. You, on the other hand, avoid any such responsibility, assume the job is much easier than it is, and deride those who take it on as “hapless schmucks”.

I dare say they speak very highly of you.

I live in Lewisham, but I don’t know how much longer I can bear it. Labour won seats because all their zombies came out to vote, wiping out the Green councillors whose votes held up, which I thought was depressing, as the Greens actually worked hard to be good councillors. Now in my ward there are three Labourites. I don’t know their names and expect I won’t see them in the next four years.

Labour control Lewisham like a mafia. Bullock presides over PFI deals that screw the living daylights out of people like me. PFI is the economic system of the East India Company, selling a monopoly to rip off the captive population, far more expensive than if the council had kept the services in-house, but because the deals are all agreed with Don Bullock, you’ve got no one to go to at the council to address issues, they all close ranks.

@Iain Coleman

Yr right – I did think you were Labour. Gah.

Yr wrong to say I have no idea how difficult running a council is – I worked in local government for quite some time and have a pretty good grasp of its functions, funding structures, and problems.

The point I’m making, though, is not about council functions, or the issues therein – it’s about Labour’s rhetoric at this point in its rebuild. In particular, I’m making a point about the disconnect between the rhetoric of those standing for the Labour leadership (who are, without exception, of the view that Labour must rebuild its relationship with its natural constituencies) and the reality of Labour on the ground rolling over in the face of public sector cuts.

Bullock’s rhetoric was submissive in the extreme in my view, and potentially naive. You insinuate that I am naive – well, I’m not the only one. It was clear to me, for example, that he expected the coalition to consult with local government before making decisions – and that he expected the coalition to take local government’s contributions on board.

I talked to him about Tory Hammersmith and Fulham, a council I’ve written about for years now, where councillors have comprehensively ignored feedback and concern, sliced through services, and started charging people on very low incomes for homecare and meals on wheels, etc – the council has an ideology which it pursues regardless. I went to a packed public meeting about voluntary sector cuts which turned into a screaming match because councillors wouldn’t let concerned locals speak. Instead of even going through the motions of hearing people out, the cabinet simply packed up and ran.

I saw exactly the same dismissal from Tory Barnet council leadership over the cutting of sheltered housing wardens – the council pursued this option in the face of virulent local opposition and expert opinion on the warden services for old people. Their failed consultation process formed part of a successful legal challenge to the decision to cut the service if memory serves.

The point is that these Tories are fanatics. They are pursuing an anti-support ideology, and they were doing that at places like Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet long before the recession and the deficit gave their programmes the legitimacy they wanted so badly. It is thus entirely appropriate to argue that Labour ought to be challenging the Tories on ideological grounds at least, and to be thinking outside of the cuts square, if you like. The left needs a better rhetoric, and I thought Cruddas and Rutherford did a good job of articulating that in the NS article I linked to.

Hi Kate,

Steve Bullock is not exactly the kind of fiery populist who will lead resistance to cuts, he is a technocrat trying to get the best financial deal for his council.

It is going to be quite difficult for some Labour people, particularly those who are used to running stuff, to get used to being in opposition. The kinds of discussions and co-operation between Labour-led authorities has already started and will develop over time, but these things take time, and won’t be found first of all amongst technocratic council leaders.

David Miliband’s future leaders idea is a good one to help to develop the activists who can develop these kinds of covenants with the people and resist the cuts to come.

Hiya Don P,

Fair post, and you know I’ll usually come from the point of view of an unreconstituted lefty.

There are two issues, though, and I think they’re worth observing.

The first is that we don’t have much time, so local Labour needs to turn the ship around fast.

Although it does take time to change direction, understand you’re in opposition and organise as a result, the coalition is hell bent on pushing its cuts programme through and there just isn’t time to regroup in the way you suggest Labour needs to. I firmly believe that it’s not just necessity – it’s ideology as well, as we’ve seen locally for some time now. The Tories have been vicious as council leaders – and long before the recession gave them a free pass for service cuts. Pickles slaughtered services at Bradford council – everyone at the local level has heard of the Beast of Bradford. Stephen Greenhalgh has been equally vicious at Hammersmith – and I understand is one of Cameron’s advisors on local government. These people are not negotiators, consultors (if there is such a word), or remotely community-minded. The idea that Pickles will pick up the phone to ask local administrations what’d work best for their communities is, frankly, ridiculously naive and even laughable.

The second point is that the Labour response needs to be followed from a community perspective. People will be relying on Labour to put up a fight for them. Labour’s wrapped up in its leadership wrangles at the moment, which is understandable to an extent, but that goes on for a good few months and meanwhile, Rome burns. Labour has real – an unexpected strength – at the local level now, and it needs to move fast to make any use of it. The truth is that there are a lot of people out here who are going to suffer. That part isn’t rhetoric.

Kate – this might be more what you are looking for:

http://www.labourlist.org/finding-a-desk-was-just-the-start-lisa-nandy


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Malcolm Evison

    RT @libcon: The Labour people need http://bit.ly/bNXEKS

  2. LMO

    RT @libcon: The Labour people need http://bit.ly/bNXEKS

  3. Kate B

    The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  4. ANN LANGLEY

    RT @hangbitch: The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  5. Carol Roper

    RT @hangbitch: The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  6. Stephen Whitehead

    RT @hangbitch The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. <Not only true, but also grimly funny.

  7. Kate B

    Save the poor!!! you Miliband twats http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. #ukpolitics why won't Labour fight cuts on the ground?

  8. Naadir Jeewa

    Reading: The Labour people need: Never one to pass up on local democracy’s offerings, yours truly recently attende… http://bit.ly/bcjfY0

  9. Therese

    RT @hangbitch: The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  10. andrew

    The Labour people need | Liberal Conspiracy: Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is … http://bit.ly/b26Zb9

  11. Roosevelt Wright, Jr

    The Labour people need | Liberal Conspiracy: It has high child poverty rates, high unemployment and problems with … http://bit.ly/chxf6z

  12. Liberal Conspiracy

    The Labour people need http://bit.ly/bNXEKS

  13. Tweets that mention The Labour people need -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, Malcolm Evison. Malcolm Evison said: RT @libcon: The Labour people need http://bit.ly/bNXEKS […]

  14. Stuart Vallantine

    RT @hangbitch: The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  15. Political Animal

    RT @hangbitch: The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  16. Juderobinson

    RT @hangbitch: The Labour people need: my latest Lib Con post. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG. Labour needs to fight cuts harder in my view.

  17. Could Lewisham be the starting point for Labour and the people to fight back? « Community Action Lewisham

    […] Could Lewisham be the starting point for Labour and the people to fight back? By jamestholland From liberalconspiracy.org […]

  18. Kate B

    @JHepplestone The main bloggers, really. I posted this the other day and people thought it was unfair. http://bit.ly/bAuJAG

  19. The Tory south cuts – Kate Belgrave

    […] These councils have been cautious in rolling out cuts plans and consultation exercises, especially compared with some London and northern councils. It’ll be interesting to see who these largely Tory councils […]

  20. Sally Bercow barred from Shropshire’s Grange – Kate Belgrave

    […] not least because all parties are on the same page on the subject. Certainly, Labour councils have put the boot into frontline service users. Bercow’s is simply the latest in a long line of stories about council attempts to throttle […]

  21. Southwark evictors – Kate Belgrave

    […] protestors who weren’t allotted special tickets from hearing debate on those cuts (like other London Labour leaders, John took much criticism for not fighting the Tories harder for better local government […]





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